Friday June 2, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers! In this edition, we share a story that may be a bellwether of sorts: a nonprofit fired its eating disorders helpline staff after they unionized, only to find the AI chatbot they replaced them with was giving out harmful advice. In other news, more families with trans or LGBTQ kids and teens are fleeing Florida, Texas, and other states that have passed restrictive laws or threatened to take away their children.

Also in this issue: Dr. Barbara Greenberg on the value of taking a pause. New moms take to TikTok to commiserate about parenting loneliness. How two siblings’ social media use shifted in college. And more.

Eating disorders helpline shut downs AI chatbot for ‘harmful’ advice after firing staff

In an apparent union-busting move, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) fired all the staffers supporting its eating disorder helpline, announcing they would be replaced by a chatbot called Tessa. A helpline worker told Vice News that NEDA executives made the decision in early May, shortly after NEDA workers decided to unionize. “A chatbot is no substitute for human empathy, and we believe this decision will cause irreparable harm to the eating disorders community,” said the union representing the workers in a public statement. 

And a substitute for empathy it wasn’t. Earlier this week, NEDA took Tessa offline, squashing its June 1st launch, after social media posts from activist Sharon Maxwell and psychologist Alexis Conason reported how the chatbot encouraged harmful habits for people with disordered eating. Both Conason and Maxwell, who wrote Chatbot Tessa to see what kind of advice it was giving out, were advised by the bot to check in with their doctors and nutritionists, but not before Tessa added that there were safe ways to drop 1-2 pounds per week, namely by creating a calorie deficit in their diets of 500 to 1000 calories per day. The bot also suggested restricting certain types of foods and offered advice on burning and tracking calorie intake. Each suggestion, aside from the advice to seek a human professional, is considered hazardous to people with eating disorders. 

“It is beyond time for NEDA to step aside,” Maxwell wrote. “If I had accessed this chatbot when I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I would NOT have gotten help for my ED. If I had not gotten help, I would not still be alive today.” NEDA’s vice president of communications and marketing initially responded to Maxwell online, accusing her of lying about the bot. After receiving screenshots of the exchange between Maxwell and the chatbot, NEDA issued an Instagram statement of its own, saying, “It came to our attention last night that the current version of the Tessa Chatbot, running the Body Positive program, may have given information that was harmful and unrelated to the program. We are investigating this immediately and have taken down that program until further notice for a complete investigation.”

In a follow-up story by Wired, a reporter talked with Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine who helped develop the program and was “surprised and saddened” by the chatbot snafu. Tessa’s advice to lose weight was not part of the program her team worked to develop, Fitzsimmons-Craft told Wired, and she doesn’t know how it infiltrated the chatbot’s repertory. “Our intention,” she said, “has only been to help individuals, to prevent these horrible problems.”

Dr. Barbara Greenberg: How taking a pause may save your relationship

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

A distressed mother worries that she and her teen daughter both tend to collect grievances and then lash out at their shocked friends, who subsequently withdraw from the friendship in hurt and anger. The mother, who is 42, adds that her own mother had borderline personality disorder and that this might have influenced her (and her daughter’s) response to frustration. Find out parent and teen psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg’s advice for her in this column for Psychology Today.

Families leave Florida (and other states) after a flood of laws threatening trans and LGBTQ+ rights 

Eli Logan never wanted to leave her home state of Florida, but recent legislative changes made her and her husband feel the state is no longer a fit place to raise their three daughters. With three school-aged children, one who identifies as lesbian, Logan told Florida Today that the state’s new laws affecting the LGBTQ+ community and schools pushed her and her husband to choose “a better, healthier place” to guide their girls into adulthood, which turned out to be a suburb in Atlanta, Georgia. Republican former State Rep. David Jolly said he, too, has considered a move after Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attacks on migrants, African Americans and LGBTQ residents. “Why would I want to raise my kids in an environment in which they’re shamed for embracing diversity of thought and diverse cultures?” he said in a May 21 interview on MSNBC.

Floridians aren’t the only ones seeking new places to call home due to laws that threaten their families. Sara Holuf told Missouri’s KMOV that she and her husband are heading to Maryland because of laws that prohibit their 11-year-old trans daughter from playing on girls sports teams and receiving gender-affirming medical care. “I can’t live with myself and tell my child, sorry you can’t play sports, we’d rather choose to live in Missouri instead of letting you live your fullest life as a kid,” Holuf said. Families have also fled Texas for fear of being prosecuted or having their LGBTQ+ teens taken away from them for helping them access gender-affirming care. 

As reported by USA Today, more than 700 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced this year alone, with half targeting trans young people. It’s added to the work that Jennifer Grosshandler and Gearah Goldstein do with the GenderCool Project, a group they co-founded in 2018 that empowers youth to create social and educational experiences with transgender and nonbinary youth who are thriving. “I’m a big brother, a son, an athlete, a friend,” said Max, one of GenderCool’s Champions. “I love ice cream (chocolate chip cookie dough is #1). And my favorite subject is orchestra. I’m transgender, but most of all I’m human.” 

In other news…

Birthing ain’t easy, and after the baby is safe and sound, when you’re battling postpartum depression or anxiety, there’s also this other thing that’s not often discussed: parenting loneliness. Birthing parents may recall the postpartum screenings now done at baby’s first pediatric appointments and initial after-labor visits with an obstetrician. Once those visits are done, though, and the family has run through to see the new baby, some parents — moms, especially — say they feel isolated and alone. Some have turned to TikTok to vent and build meaningful connections with parents having the same experiences. “When I was growing up, it was, ‘Mom does what she does, and she does it without complaining,’” 27-year-old mother Farrah Parris told The Washington Post. “But today, people are speaking up about how we’re feeling.”

A word after a word after a word is power, Margaret Atwood said. It’s one of my favorite quotes. Words spoken to me had the greatest impact on my development in childhood, both positive and negative. As a parent now myself, I think lots about what I can say to my child to help her uncover her own power and grow into the person she was born to be. Fatherly has some great starting phrases to spark more connection between children and parents and help kids build confidence and resilience. 

Last summer, GMA3 contributor Alicia Quarles livestreamed her own mental breakdown. Later that same day, she found out she was pregnant with twins. Now, almost a year later, Quarles spoke with PEOPLE magazine about her mental health recovery and simultaneously birthing two babies over age 40. “I found out through working on myself in therapy that there were a lot of things I hadn’t dealt with…“I used to feel guilty and embarrassed but I don’t anymore,” she said. “My message is you can fall down, things happen. It’s how you come back.”

Meet Xenia and Madeleine, a pair of fraternal twins in college. One shunned social media and the other embraced it. Both spoke with KQED Radio about the effect their social media patterns had on their high school years and transition to college. Their testimonies may surprise you. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...