Do you use TikTok? If you do, you are one of the more than one billion active users that have helped the video-sharing platform surge in popularity! However, there might be a darker side to this social media giant as experts are now calling for research into the impact of TikTok use on human health.
Surprisingly, there has not been much research into the health effect of using the Bytedance-owned platform. This is a gross omission as it is necessary to identify what effect TikTok has on the users, especially as they are often younger adults.
Social media use has long been known to impact health negatively, and other popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been studied in detail.
Marco Zenone is a health policy researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He admits that despite watching the platform grow into the powerhouse that it is, there has been a dearth of scholarly investigation into TikTok.
According to Zenone, TikTok has to be subjected to the same study other social media platforms have been through. For example, the platform’s effect on the mental health of teenage girls or how TikTok deals with the spread of conspiracy theories.
Zenone believes researchers should step in urgently and start making their findings. The researcher has teamed up with his colleagues to publish a proposal on a research methodology to adopt. It outlined specific aspects of TikTok that need attention, including how alcohol and vaping products are presented and how TikTok users take medical advice from the platform.
The proposal also wants to look into TikTok’s moderation process, which directly affects which videos are allowed to go viral.
The Verge had an interview with Zenone, and some excerpts are presented below:
Why don’t we know much about TikTok’s health impacts?
I think it rose to prominence so quickly, and research hasn’t been able to catch up. So right now we know that TikTok has 1 billion users, and we see a lot of the research coming out is still on Facebook, Instagram, and related platforms but hasn’t shifted in TikTok yet. That’s kind of concerned us as public health researchers because we’ve seen what happened in the past when it’s left unchecked.
What did you end up identifying as the important areas to study, and why are they so key?
Some of the things that we’ve flagged are just some of the issues that we’ve dealt with on other social media platforms, and have been documented issues on other platforms, but that we haven’t looked at yet on TikTok. So, for example, the promotion of health-harming products — products like Juul spread on Instagram spread faster than health researchers could study how the conversation was expanding. That’s one reason we need to be proactive with this kind of research and document what’s happening around the platform.
A lot of people also give health advice on the platform, but we don’t really know the quality of the health advice. What research is available tells us that when someone has a credential to speak on a topic, they’re usually accurate. But if you introduce a conflict of interest, like someone selling a product, the quality goes down. And that can be concerning depending on how someone is using that health information.
We also know misinformation is a problem on social media, but we don’t know the extent of it on TikTok. We also need to look into the dissemination of hateful or sensitive content on TikTok. With a billion users, we have to ask how good its moderation actually is.
Are these questions similar to the ones we ask around other social media platforms, or is there something unique about TikTok here?
The main difference I see is that TikTok really has the opportunity to learn from Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. The shortcomings have been documented. So the big thing is the newness. Social media usually faces the same problems across platforms, even if on different scales. That’s one of the reasons we need to do the research and see what’s happening.
The user base of TikTok is also a bit different. There are a lot of young people on the platform, and I think we have to keep that in mind as we do research.
Why is understanding TikTok so important?
Our view is that TikTok is going to be here for quite a while. And we know that the majority of people who use it are younger people. So it’s just about making TikTok as safe as possible.
I believe that we have to keep TikTok accountable. And one of the ways that we can do that is making sure that we’re keeping up to date with what’s happening on the platform.