Changing the chatter on body image

| July 18, 2021

One in three young people in Australia are concerned about their body image.

Poor body image is a major risk factor for the development of eating disorders that impact more than one million Australians. These are commonly misunderstood as a “diet gone too far” or an issue of “vanity”.

In reality, these are serious disorders that are the most deadly of all mental illnesses. They impact people of all ages, genders and backgrounds, not just young girls.

Despite eating disorders being so prevalent, fewer than one in four people ever seek appropriate treatment in their lifetime. Even if more people do decide to take that crucial first step of seeking support, the current eating disorder support services are so overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic that people aren’t getting help as quickly as they need, or at all.

It was these statistics that inspired Gemma Sharp from Monash University’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences to try to fill this gap in service provision and reach the more than 75% of people who never seek treatment.

People are spending more time online than ever before during the COVID-19 pandemic for study, work and leisure, and this includes a great deal of time on social media.

Photo-based activities on social media such as posting selfies and looking at other people’s photos can be very problematic for body image.

Dr Sharp said that “social media represents the key battleground to prevent and intervene in the development of negative body image, which can lead to eating disorders and other mental health issues”.

“I wanted to provide people with 24/7 evidence-based support in the place they needed it most – on social media.

“This is how KIT, the positive body image chatbot was born.”

A chatbot is a computer program that can learn to have human-like conversations using artificial intelligence technology.

This technology has been used in the commercial sector for decades, but chatbots have only recently started to be used in the field of mental health, with KIT representing a world-first chatbot in the field of body image.

Chatbots allow people to be anonymous and represent that “in-between” step from deciding to seek help and actually speaking to a health professional.

Dr Sharp was careful to point out that KIT could never replace the support from a health professional.

“KIT provides simple information, and encourages people to contact the Butterfly Foundation Helpline service for more in-depth support.”

KIT was developed in collaboration with Australia’s national body image and eating disorder support organisation, the Butterfly Foundation, as well as technical partner Proxima. The chatbot was developed to have two types of conversations:

  • Education-based, about the causes and consequences of body image issues and eating disorders
  • Teaching coping skills or strategies that mental health professionals routinely offer.

The chatbot conversation was co-designed with young people and parents/carers to ensure that the style and tone of KIT’s conversation was relatable across the gender, age and background spectrum. The feedback on the chatbot was very positive from both groups.

As one young person who identified as gender diverse commented:

“To me, KIT felt like non-binary, and I know it’s, like, a ridiculous thing, but I felt seen by this little character.”

The parents/carers also appreciated the ease of use and accessibility of KIT.

As one mother of a teenage girl with an eating disorder stated:

“To have something that people can use 24/7 is really important when they can’t access any other help, or just to get ideas of where to go.”

KIT was officially launched on the Butterfly Foundation website and Facebook Messenger services in November 2020. In six months, KIT has chatted with more than 10,000 people seeking help for themselves or for a loved one.

Dr Sharp said she and the KIT team were thrilled that so many people were using and benefiting from the chatbot’s advice.

“What has been especially heartening is the diversity of people using KIT – people from demographics who do not traditionally seek support,” she said.

Dr Sharp encourages as many people as possible to use the chatbot.

“KIT learns more from each conversation. We use this information to keep improving KIT’s conversational abilities so we can better help the millions of people struggling with body image and eating issues in Australia and beyond.”

The KIT chatbot project was funded by grants from AMP Foundation, Bupa Health Foundation, Cooperative Research Centres Association, and Monash University. If you’re interested in supporting this project, please contact Dr Gemma Sharp on gemma.sharp@monash.edu. This article was published by Lens.

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