Children are being “punished” for eating too much on an anonymous messaging app, with “anorexia coaches” telling hundreds of kids as young as 13 to handwrite the words “I’m not hungry” 500 times as a lesson.
Kik, a popular instant chat service among children and teenagers, has been scrutinised by health and cyber safety experts for the harmful impact it can have on minors struggling with eating disorders and body image issues.
The app, which is used by more than 350 million people worldwide, has come under fire in the past over safety issues and claims it enables child grooming and exploitation.
The West Australian found at least 76 public pro-anorexia and bulimia groups after signing up on Kik. As soon as users join a public conversation, group admins send a list of “rules” that must be met if a person wishes to remain in that particular community.
Some groups require users to have had an eating disorder for at least six months, to weigh in daily, to fast weekly, and to eat less than 500 calories in a day, while others punish users who fail to meet their eating goals by demanding naked pictures of the shamed user.
“No bread, eating any bread at all results in you being called a breadwinner for 24 hours,” one admin message said. “Punishment for binging: handwrite ‘I don’t deserve to eat’ 300 times. Send proof to an admin.”
Another stated: “Daily calorie limit is 500 calories, if you go over you get meanspo (mean inspiration) … If you ate 700 cals in one day, then the next day you can only eat 300”.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of 14 to 19-year-olds admitted to WA hospitals for eating disorders rose by almost 100 patients, with 478 children and teens diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders last year alone.
National manager of prevention services at the Butterfly Foundation, Danni Rowlands, said groups that held conversations around punishment and rewards in relation to food, and that encouraged children to track their weight, steps and fitness, could result in unhealthy relationships with food and exercise and trigger eating disorders.
“These groups may further perpetuate the thin ideal and societal pressures to look a certain way,” he said. “This could be considered a form of online bullying, where individuals and communities are being driven by fear and engaging in potentially harmful behaviours without being warned of risk factors.
“Eating disorders are complex neuropsychological illnesses with comparisons and competitiveness being characteristics of the illness. Any active promotion or encouragement of engaging in related behaviours can be very harmful and further fuel comparisons rather than encourage help seeking.”
The most alarming names of some of the pro anorexia groups discovered by The West Australian include #anorexicforlife, #skinnygirlssell, #starveandstrict and #thinningsouls.
Social media and body image expert Dr Marylin Bromberg said the biggest concern with Kik was the “anonymity of it all”. “There have been websites that have encouraged this kind of behaviour for years, but the thing about Kik is that it’s anonymous, so it’s harder to hold these ‘coaches’ to account.”
The UWA senior lecturer said Kik was enabling people with no fear of being caught to “prey on impressionable girls and boys … and literally teaching them to become anorexic or bulimic”.
“It’s spreading very quickly,” she said.
Paul Litherland, owner of an internet awareness company and a former police officer, said the rise in offenders using Kik to interact and groom young users made the app “one of the highest risks on the network”.
“Because you don’t need a phone number to sign up to Kik, it’s extremely difficult to track them (offenders) for law enforcement,” the dad said.
Mr Litherland said a lot of young users were using their real names on the app, and that he was regularly getting parents contacting him after a predator approached their child.
“We had a 14-year-old Perth girl who was being spoken to over weeks by an account of a 15-year-old boy in Melbourne. It was a standard conversation at first, and then it turned rude and sexual. He eventually asked her for nudes and she sent one,” he said.
Perth parent Hayley Shirwood is one of the luckier ones. Her 13-year-old daughter was using Kik for about six months when the mother found out her child had been receiving naked photos from strangers.
“It literally shocked me … I told her you need to delete it,” Ms Shirwood said. “The amount of messages asking for her pictures or saying they’ll trade photos of them masturbating for photos of her was horrifying.”
Ms Shirwood’s daughter sent two messages telling users to stop sending “these messages, I don’t like them”, but the disgusting messages continued.
The key message to parents and children using Kik or similar platforms is to never send photos of yourself and to never meet someone in real life that you met on the internet.
The advice comes from expert in software practice at UWA, Dr David Glance, who said the only real solution was to bring in regulations to make companies like “Kik and Facebook accountable for the damage they cause”.
“If they had to go to court every time a criminal used their platforms as a co-accused, that would soon make them do something about the problems they have created,” he said.
“Whilst Kik is criticised specifically because of the lack of a requirement for a phone number – it is worth remembering that Facebook doesn’t either – and it is very easy to sign up with a fake temporary email address.”
A Kik spokesperson said the company took online safety very seriously and was constantly assessing and improving “our trust and safety measures”.