Hundreds of Instagram accounts promoting a rare eating disorder have been running unchecked, raising questions over the social media giant’s ability to monitor harmful messages.
Pica, an eating disorder where sufferers habitually consume non-edible substances such as chalk, clay, or dirt, is a little known but potentially deadly condition.
Despite Instagram making significant efforts to censor or eliminate potentially harmful content around better known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, a thriving community of pica ‘enthusiasts’ has grown without any apparent oversight.
Scores of public accounts feature Instagrammers, many of them teenagers, chewing and appearing to swallow brittle rocks and dirt. Others offer rare clays and chalks for sale, suggesting the existence of a sophisticated pica network.
Thousands of posts under hashtags like #pica (311,000 tagged posts), #chalkeating (139,000) and #edibleclay (5,000) raise questions about the limitations of existing censorship and whether the platform provides a support network for sufferers – or works to harm those with the compulsion.
However, those in the community described relief upon finding people on Instagram with the same uncommon cravings.
Mia* is one of many Instagram users whose profile is filled with videos of her chewing a dizzying variety of dirt. Her camera captures the act close-up: small chunks of earth disappear into her mouth, where they shatter into a million pieces. The sound is tectonic. Her videos draw thousands of views each, and her fans often comment on what she should chew next.
“I didn’t even know it was weird. I just craved a certain kind of rocks and loved the smell of dirt after it rained and basements,” Mia told P.TV via Instagram messages.
“Then as I got older I realised it was weird so I mostly stopped but always had the craving.”
That changed when she turned to Instagram and YouTube. Mia said she was drawn to videos of people eating ice, which triggered her ASMR – that is, her Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or the calming, tingling sensation people like Mia experience when they hear certain crunching, crackling sounds. That ASMR content “led me to the pica community,” she said.
“I saw people describing clays and dirts that reminded my of the cravings I had as a kid. Like ‘basementy’, ‘cementy’ and earth after rain. I knew I had to purchase it and try it!,” Mia said.
Rose*, another Instagram user whose posts often fall under the #pica hashtag, said the platform exposed her to niches she may not have discovered otherwise.
“I learned about clays from Instagram. I didn’t initially know people ate clays,” Rose said.
Her profile mirrors Mia’s, with a seemingly endless stream of rocky chunks being chewed on camera. But Rose said her cravings began with chalk, which she first felt compelled to eat while pregnant – a factor heavily linked to pica diagnoses.
“I wondered what it tasted like, so I started craving it,” Rose said.
“Pretty soon I went and got some and it satisfied my cravings.”
There’s some knowledge on Instagram that those cravings carry potential risks. P.TV has observed vendors warning would-be buyers they should chew clay products at their own peril. Some Instagrammers also state they don’t actually ingest the non-food items shown in their videos; it’s hard to tell whether this is to downplay health concerns or to define themselves as ASMR-only chewers, as both camps use the same blur of pica-related hashtags.
“I chew them for the satisfaction of the craving but do not consume them,” Mia said, adding she is on “Team Don’t Swallow”. But in her experience, “the people who are having the health issues are the ones that consume in very large quantities.”
Pica is a challenging, complex, and under-researched disorder, according to Juliette Thomson, a psychologist and manager of The Butterfly Foundation’s national hotline.
She said it’s hard to say how many Australians experience pica due to a simple lack of data.
“[It was] previously obscured by other diagnoses – and to some degree may still be, because it remains poorly understood and recognised,” Thomson said, adding it was only a recent addition to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), psychology’s go-to guidebook.
There are four prevailing ideas about what causes pica, said Thomson. There are theories that “deficits in nutrition such as iron and zinc play a role”, with sufferers subconsciously craving substances which contain those minerals. Similarly, Thomson describes “an emerging theory that it may be driven by an innate drive to strengthen the immune system through ingestion of micro-organisms.” Pica has also been posited as a stress mechanism for some people living with autism spectrum disorders, OCD, and schizophrenia.
Finally, there’s the organoleptic model. Simply put: “For some people, the taste and texture of soil in the mouth is very appealing.”
(Separately, some cultures engage in the eating of dirt – known as geophagy – in rituals or as part of traditional medicine practice. The medical community recognises this fact; Eating Disorders Victoria states that for pica to be diagnosed, the eating behaviour must not be “part of a culturally supported or socially normative practice”.)
It’s not known what causes pica, but there are “very serious and potentially fatal” health risks, Thomson said. Ingesting non-food substances can cause serious damage to teeth, the mouth, and the throat, and can result in severe intestinal blockages. Eating dirt and other earthy substances can also heighten the risk of lead poisoning, exposure to harmful chemicals, and contact with dangerous bacteria or parasites. Pica has been linked to the deaths of three mentally handicapped men.
Despite the health risks, pica-related posts are easy to find on Instagram. Hashtags like #picacrunch, #asmrpica, and #dirteating show thousands of related photos and videos. Until very recently, no pica-linked hashtags observed by P.TV activated the same content alerts Instagram has installed around #anorexia or #bulimia. However, following questions from P.TV, on Friday morning the #pica hashtag brought up a content advisory warning.
While Instagram has long banned negative eating disorder-related hashtags like #thinspo, the platform has presented itself as a place where users facing mental health issues can find strength in solidarity. “Every day on Instagram, we see people share their mental health journeys and connect with communities of support,” Instagram co-founder and former CEO Kevin Systrom said in a 2017 blog post. “From dedicated accounts around an issue to unique hashtags adopted by groups, these communities are helping to make illnesses that are often invisible to friends and family visible through photos and videos.”
The Butterfly Foundation agrees that Instagram can be helpful – to an extent. “Social media can in some instances be used as a safe space for those experiencing mental health disorders, including those with eating disorders,” said Melissa Wilton, the organisation’s head of communications. “If used positively it can be a powerful tool for those in recovery and opens up a space for meaningful connections to be made within the eating disorder community.”
It’s not clear if the pica community would fall under those guidelines, but both Rose and Mia said the platform has provided a place for them to express themselves and their uncommon cravings.
“We have created a community that lets us be creative with our pica,” Rose said.
“It was nice to have people to talk to about it, that know what you are talking about and can relate,” Mia added.
“It’s very cool to find a group of people who know what I mean when I say something tastes ‘basementy.’”
But when asked if people with pica could use Instagram as a tool for recovery, Rose made her thoughts clear.
“Lol no… I feel like it increases the cravings,” she said.
After P.TV’s inquiries, Instagram says searches for #pica now trigger content warnings and links connecting users to support services.
“We have a deep responsibility to make sure the people on Instagram are safe, and we now include a sensitivity screen and offer resources when someone searches for the #pica hashtag,” said Philip Chua, Public Policy Manager for Instagram Asia-Pacific.
“Mental health and eating disorders are complex and nuanced issues, and we work with expert groups who advise us on our approach.
“They tell us that expressing a person’s mental health struggle can be valuable for getting support or sharing their recovery.
“This is why we don’t remove certain content and instead offer resources and information about organisations that can help.”
Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, has long relied on community moderation to identify and report troubling content, and founder Mark Zuckerberg last year said 30,000 people are now tasked with reviewing and acting on posts which violate its safety standards. That manpower is bolstered by AI technology, which Facebook says can help identify harmful text and imagery.
But Facebook has been criticised for its permissiveness towards certain kinds of troubling content, and for being slow to act on violent, distressing footage circulating on its pages.
There’s little doubt people like Mia and Rose would be unhappy to see their accounts disappear, despite being aware of the dangers.
“I’m not even sure if my cravings could be counted as pica. I don’t know all of the ins and outs of that diagnosis,” Mia said.
“It doesn’t bother me that I crave it. I always have.”
*Names have been changed after requests for anonymity.
Help is available.
If you’d like to talk about eating disorders or body image issues, give Butterfly Foundation a call on 1800 33 4673 or chat online.
If you are in distress, please call Lifeline on 13 11 44 or chat online.
Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.
If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.Image: Instagram