Over the last three years, people have flocked to TikTok in droves, but study into the social media giant’s possible health effects has lagged behind. Despite the fact that TikTok today has over 1 billion users, public health specialists have scant information regarding the platform’s (mainly youthful) users’ health.
This is problematic since social media platforms have been shown to be damaging to the health of specific groups of kids and adolescents, according to studies.
“The platform is so big, yet there’s absolutely no scientific study on it,” says Marco Zenone, a health policy researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Zenone feels it’s critical for experts to investigate if TikTok has concerns comparable to other platforms, such as undermining the mental health of some young females and failing to curb conspiracy theories.
That’s why, earlier this month, he and associates issued a recommended study agenda identifying the topics specialists need to look into. They include how alcohol and vaping are displayed on the site, user-provided medical advice — which is especially important in light of COVID-19 disinformation — and moderation standards. They’re also concerned about what happens to users if videos conveying personal, sensitive experiences become popular, and whether the platform will have the same influence on teen mental health as Instagram.
“Considering how popular TikTok is, the study is very behind,” Zenone explains.
Zenone spoke with reporters about his planned agenda and why studying TikTok’s health implications is important.
Why do we know so little about TikTok’s health consequences?
I believe it grew in popularity so rapidly that research hasn’t been able to keep up. So far, we know that TikTok has 1 billion members, and we’ve noticed that most of the study is still focused on Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms, rather than TikTok. As public health researchers, we’re concerned about this because we’ve seen what happens when it’s allowed uncontrolled in the past.
What did you come up with as the most significant topics to research, and why are they so crucial?
Some of the concerns we’ve noted are ones we’ve dealt with on other social media platforms, and they’ve been recorded difficulties on other platforms, but we haven’t looked into on TikTok yet. As one example, the marketing of health-harming items such as Juul expanded quicker than health professionals could investigate how the debate was developing on Instagram. One of the reasons we need to be proactive with this type of study and record what’s going on with the platform is because of this.
Many people also provide health advice on the site, but we have no way of knowing how good the advice is. According to the research, when someone has a certificate to talk on a topic, they are typically correct. When a conflict of interest is introduced, such as someone selling a product, the quality suffers. And, depending on how that health information is used, this might be worrisome.
We also know that disinformation is an issue on social media, but the level to which it exists on TikTok is unknown. On TikTok, we also need to check at the spread of hostile or sensitive content. With a billion users, we have to wonder how effective its moderation is.
Are these the same questions we ask about other social media sites, or is there anything special about TikTok?
The most significant distinction, in my opinion, is that TikTok has a genuine opportunity to learn from Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. The flaws have been identified and reported. So the novelty is the most important factor. Even if on different scales, social media frequently has the same issues across platforms. One of the reasons we need to undertake the study and figure out what’s going on is because of this.
TikTok’s user base is also a little different. On the platform, there are a lot of young individuals, and I believe we should keep that in mind while we do research.
Why is it so vital to understand TikTok?
TikTok, in our opinion, will be there for a long time. We also know that the bulk of those who use it are under the age of thirty. So it’s simply a matter of making TikTok as secure as possible.
We need to hold TikTok accountable, in my opinion. And one of the ways we can accomplish that is to make sure we’re up to speed on what’s going on with the platform.