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Mental Health

How the YouTube Algorithm Led me to Disordered Eating

I remember the first video I watched that got me hooked on YouTube. I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I came across a Michelle Phan makeup tutorial on how to look like a barbie, I was absolutely obsessed. I remember thinking “man, how crazy is this? She actually looks like a barbie, who knew that makeup could do that!”, I tried to show my mom and sister, but they weren’t as impressed. That didn’t matter though, because she continued to put out tutorials on how to apply makeup to look like a sultry vampire, cat woman, and even a gothic doll. While my family was unimpressed, I certainly was and YouTube took note of this; I was soon being recommended plenty of makeup tutorials and thus, I found one of my biggest hobbies to this day. But makeup was not the only thing that the  YouTube Algorithm took notice of.

 


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Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

A few years later I became interested in fitness, I began to do Pilates at home, and I watched a lot of YouTube fitness instructors. It was great, I was developing a healthy habit and finding exercises and instructors that I liked. But eventually, my video recommendations changed- I was beginning to get videos titled “Anyone can get a Thigh Gap”, “ How to Lose 30lbs in Two Weeks”, etc. My fifteen-minute Pilates workouts quickly turned into hours of watching dieting advice, this advice ranged anywhere from raw veganism to pro-anorexia. I was suddenly unhappy with my body. I was constantly trying diets and extreme exercise to be “skinny” it was no longer about health, the only thing that mattered was the number on the scale and the size of my jeans. I tried everything, apple cider vinegar shots, raw-veganism, and restricting myself to 800 calories a day. Luckily, the body positivity movement came about, and I started to realize that I wanted to be healthy and I did not need to be in the double digits to be beautiful, healthy, and happy.

The reason I was recommended these videos was because I watched workout routines and “makeup gurus”, a common thing for these content creators to produce are “What I Eat in a Day” videos. While these are both fine genres to watch, the Algorithm decided that I might watch these more extreme restrictive dieting videos and they were right. I am happy I was able to move on from restrictive dieting but, I’m concerned about today’s teenage girls. Social media algorithms are much more sophisticated, I just hope they will not get caught in the dangerous path I was on. Algorithms leading to extremism is not limited to dieting, there is a rising concern about how the algorithms recommend political and social commentary. Media platforms run on people’s attention, and the things that people pay attention to are often controversial and destructive. It is becoming even more important for us to be mindful of the content we are being fed, and how it might be leading us to extremism.

Madeleine is a junior at the University of Utah studying Psychology and Political Science with a minor in Sociology. She likes coffee, paint-by-numbers, a little too much YouTube, and nail design.