I haven’t had the time to fully work through my thoughts on this (so I may shift), but here is my reaction to tumblr’s new policy, which seems to be being very positively received.
1) Tumblr is a private company and has complete decision-making authority over what users can do with their service. So, some knee-jerk arguments about freedom of speech simply confuse public and private spaces.
2) For those who know my day job, you know that these developmental mental health issues are near and dear to me and something I’ve spent a lot of time working on and thinking and writing about. Disordered eating behavior is on the rise, and it can’t just be explained away by saying our surveillance and reporting is simply catching more cases. That is part of the story of the increase in rates, but a small part. More youth are engaging in these behaviors, and former disparities in rates are shrinking. For example, female adolescents of color, who had previously demonstrated a marked degree of protection from these issues are seeing the gap between their rates and the higher rates amongst white girls start to shrink. And male adolescents are also narrowing the gaps with a marked increases in the incidence and prevalence of disordered eating behaviors and in crossing full diagnostic thresholds as well. So, tumblr is operating in a context where these issues are real and the deadliest of all mental health disorders, and where many of their users fall in this age group and I applaud them for taking it seriously and spending time thinking through how and whether to address the growing use of tumblr blogs in the pro-ana, pro-mia, and thinspiration realm… The growth of these “support” communities, provide youth with a sense of normalcy and rationalization for very disordered behavior, and contributes to the difficulty in getting youth to engage in and adhere to treatment (for a disorder where treatment engagement and adherence is already a real challenge).
3) As I said earlier, while, I tend to dismiss the internet comments of “Free speech!” by folks who really misunderstand that it applies to governments and not private citizens or enterprises (hey they’re people too after all!). But… And this is my big but (i see what I did there) on this stuff… web services such as tumblr, facebook, etc… are in many ways more than a business. They offer transformative public spaces for communities and I think with that comes a special sort of responsibility that other businesses don’t have. That is why I am incredibly worried about policies in these kinds of spaces that restrict speech in any way. I applaud their consideration of mechanisms such as disclaimers and links to help services, but that someone will get to look at a blog and make a call on whether the content crosses some line is deeply troubling to me.
I don’t envy David and company on the call they have to make here. And I don’t want to overstate the “slippery slope” argument around speech. Parents and schools need to wake the hell up about the growth of activities on line that bolster disordered eating behaviors. Most, frankly, have no idea this is even happening. But what is the best response? Is it to use some of the considerable resources of the tumblr community to raise awareness and to offer information on where and how help can be found? I hope so. Is it to make a decision that restricts the sorts of content folks can post? I’m not so sure. What if one doesn’t post ideas about how to restrict caloric intake, but instead just posts pictures of obviously sick models saying how beautiful they are? Where is the line? I just don’t see how this policy gets us to a place of change, in the way that supporting meaningful efforts to have youth support each other and to get help would.
These blogs have gone from myspace, to tumblr, to facebook, to whatever is next. Youth will find outlets to feed this illness and to undermine others as well as part of their own disease. tumblr has the freedom to do what they want, and I think they have begun a good process of thinking about this issue. but simply shuttering blogs doesn’t address the issue, it just lets tumblr say it isn’t happening on their servers anymore.
If any tumblr folk want to contact me let me know. I’m happy to share some thoughts, and to connect you with some folks who work on these specific disorders.