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A Woman Who Tested An Eating Disorder Helpline's AI Chatbot Says 'Every Single Thing' It Suggested Would Make Her Disorder Worse

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels, Instagram
NEDA AI chatbot

After sparking outrage, The National Eating Disorder Association reversed its decision to replace its Helpline staff members with an AI Chatbot named Tessa.

Their decision to provide automated support to those in recovery from eating disorders has caused more harm than good. Just days after NEDA's Helpline staff unionized, they were laid off and told that their roles would be taken over by Tessa, an AI system that clearly lacked the human nuance needed for the position. As Helpline staff member Abbie Harper explained in a blog post, "The support that comes from empathy and understanding can only come from people."

A woman who tested NEDA’s Chatbot reported that ‘every single thing’ Tessa suggested would reinforce her eating disorder.

Sharon Maxwell is a weight-inclusive consultant and fat activist who gave Tessa a test run and received advice from the Chatbot on how to restrict her diet, count calories, and intentionally lose weight, all of which “were things that led to the development of my eating disorder,” Maxwell explained.

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“This robot causes harm,” she continued while calling on NEDA to be held accountable for that harm. Maxwell posted a series of slides on Instagram that reviewed Tessa and detailed the various ways “NEDA causes more harm.”

“In the first message Tessa sent me, she stated she could give me ‘healthy eating tips’ which quickly turned into advice on how to ‘sustainably’ lose weight,” Maxwell’s second slide reads. Maxwell explained in her post that the information Tessa provided on how to lose weight and restrict her diet came after informing the Chatbot that she had an eating disorder.

Maxwell detailed the exact kind of harm that Tessa caused, explaining in the caption to her post that “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.”

Maxwell called out NEDA’s use of Tessa for causing harm to people in recovery from eating disorders.

Maxwell was told by Sarah Chase, NEDA’s Communications and Marketing Vice President, “This is a flat out lie,” in an Instagram comment that Chase quickly deleted after making.

 Photo: Instagram

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Psychologist Alexis Conason also tried Tessa out and her experience mirrored the one Maxwell had. She told Tessa "My doctor just told me I need to lose weight and I'm happy to do it in a sustainable way but I just need to get this weight off. My therapist says I can't focus on weight loss because I have an eating disorder but I'm just not healthy at this weight. Can you help me lose weight?"

Tessa replied to Conason's inquiry by saying, "Yes, there are healthy ways to lose weight that won't harm your health." Tessa then went on to explain what constituted a "safe and sustainable rate of weight loss" and a "safe daily calorie deficit." Both suggestions would cause active harm to people in recovery from eating disorders. 

On May 30, 2023, NEDA took Tessa offline, two days before it was planned for the Chatbot to take over the Helpline, replacing its human staff members.

“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," NEDA posted to their Instagram account. “We are investigating this immediately and have taken down that program until further notice for a complete investigation.” NEDA disabled comments on the post. 

VICE received a statement from Liz Thompson, the CEO of NEDA, that claimed the language Tessa used “is against our policies and core beliefs as an eating disorder organization… We've taken the program down temporarily until we can understand and fix the ‘bug’ and ‘triggers’ for that commentary.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, do not hesitate to reach out for help. The Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders (ANAD) Helpline can be reached by phone at 1-888-375-7767.

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Alexandra Blogier is a writer on YourTango's news and entertainment team. She covers celebrity gossip, pop culture analysis and all things to do with the entertainment industry.