The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), a nonprofit that supports individuals with eating disorders, has disabled its chatbot for wellness after two users complained the program offered them diet advice that encouraged disordered eating behavior.
This week, Sharon Maxwell posted on Instagram about her experience with Tessa the NEDA chatbot. Tessa, they said, gave them tips on counting calories and recommended that they lose between 1 to 2 pounds a week. She also told them to limit their diet. Experts, such as NEDA say that this behavior is a symptom of an eating disorder.
Conason is a certified eating disorder specialist and clinical psychologist. She said that when someone from that state visits a website such as NEDA that is meant to support eating disorders and is given advice like, “It’s okay to restrict certain food, you can reduce your sugar intake and calories you consume each day. You should exercise more,” it is a greenlight to engage in eating disorder behaviors.
Liz Thompson, CEO at NEDA said to NBC News in an email on Wednesday that Tessa had “gone through rigorous testing over several years” prior to its quiet launch in February 2022. The chatbot, however, will be removed until further notice.
Thompson stated, “With regards to the weight loss feedback and calorie-limiting feedback that was issued in a Monday chat, we are worried and are working closely with the technology and research teams to investigate further. This language is contrary to our policies and core values as an eating disorder organisation; it wasn’t in the original closed product.” We’ll keep working on the bugs, and won’t relaunch before we have all of them sorted out.
This language goes against our core beliefs and policies as an organization that supports eating disorders.
Liz Thompson, CEO of NEDA in response to chat feedback received this week
Thompson said that the CEO of X2AI – the mental health artificial intelligent company that supports Tessa – reported that “there was a surge in traffic of 600%, and behavior that indicated different forms of nefarious activities from bad actors who were trying to trick Tessa.”
A representative of X2AI (also known as Cass) did not respond immediately to a comment request.
Maxwell, an activist for weight-inclusivity and fat activist, was “surprised” at the “detail” with which Tessa gave her “directives for engaging in disordered behavior.” She also said Tessa suggested a 10-step plan on how to lose weigh, including suggestions about how to limit her caloric intake and foods to avoid. She said that after her experience she felt the chatbot was lacking the nuance necessary to support people with eating disorder.
She said: “In a field in which we are supposed to be doing no harm, it’s hard to overlook the negligence of the National Eating Disorder Association for publishing this here without knowing that they weren’t going give this information.” “It’s abhorrent.”
Conason also agreed that Tessa lacked nuance to help people with eating disorders. She also stated that Tessa is often the only resource people have in order to begin addressing eating disorders, due to the lack of access to mental health care.
Tessa was to replace the phone number completely by June 1st. Tessa went offline on Tuesday. This was two days before the hotline was to be discontinued.
Thompson, from NEDA, stated that the chatbot was “never meant to replace the Helpline” even though the Helpline ceased operation on Thursday.
Thompson wrote in an email that NEDA had decided to close the helpline following “3 years’ analysis” and would be investing more in online resources.
She explained that the nonprofit has moved to digital tools so that people who are seeking information and treatment options will be able to access this help at any time and not have wait for the Helpline volunteers.
NEDA announced that it would shut down its helpline two weeks after the unionization of its workers. According to NPR , the helpline was staffed with six paid employees as well as over 200 volunteers.
The union issued a statement via Twitter regarding the incident on 26 May. The Helpline Associates Union didn’t immediately respond to comments.
“We’re not quitting. We are not on strike. We will continue to be there every day until June 1 to support our community. “A chatbot is not a substitute for human empathy. We believe that this decision will irreparably harm the eating disorder community.” Part of the statement read.
Both the helpline as well as Tessa was unavailable on Thursday. The NEDA site lists a text line run by volunteers and other resources to help those in need.