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Opinion: TikTok health trends are unhelpful — and even dangerous

How health and fitness misinformation can fuel eating disorders

Opinion: TikTok health trends are unhelpful — and even dangerous

Before the COVID-19 lockdown, I tried TikTok once and I thought “interesting, but I’m above it.” In truth, I was an anxious abstainer unwilling to confront my age and the possibility that I wasn’t inherently cool anymore. However, I returned to the video-sharing app in a moment of physical distancing weakness and I quickly became addicted. 

While it is a great place to connect with others and feel a sense of community, the platform has become host to an alarming amount of misinformation regarding fitness and diets. My ‘For You’ page features content focused on weight loss over health: workouts for “super easy” thigh reduction, “what I eat in a day” videos, and hacks to “lose six pounds in two days” all of which highlight a widespread ideal that ‘thin is best.’ 

As someone who struggled with disordered eating as a teenager, the ease at which these videos can reinforce harmful understandings of physical and nutritional health is glaringly obvious. Sixty per cent of TikTok’s users in the US are between the ages of 16 and 24 — add that to being stuck at home, the need to maintain a semblance of control in the midst of a global pandemic, and the free time to compare oneself to popular creators, and you have the perfect storm to fuel a resurgence of eating disorders.

Audiences are increasingly looking to online media resources for information and advice. Clea Skopeliti and Bethan John of First Draft have recorded how social media platforms have grappled with discovering, mediating, and deleting harmful content that spreads misinformation amongst the COVID-19 pandemic in their series on health misinformation.

It is time to extend the same attention to content that encourages eating disorders due to lack of scientific data, certified training, and minimal fitness knowledge. 

The surge of potentially harmful content on TikTok is indicative of the failure of their community guidelines, which claim that, “content that promotes eating habits that are likely to cause health issues” is not allowed. Videos may slip through filters because their content is not overtly or intentionally harmful. For instance, creators with ‘ideal’ bodies often release workout and “what I eat in a day” videos because they receive a large number of comments asking them to.

Although sharing may come from a place of good intent, this advice is often founded by the advice of other teenagers and minimal health and fitness knowledge. Other examples include the surge of videos showing ‘skinny’ tea and other miracle drink recipes promising weight loss, and the popular “so you think I’m skinny” and “weight loss check” sounds.

TikTok’s For You page — a tailored stream unique to each user that acts as a landing page for content — magnifies the reach of the harm and body image issues that misinformation can cause, as compared to other social media platforms.

The company recently wrote about the workings of the algorithm behind the For You page: “Our goal is to find balance between suggesting content that’s relevant to you while also helping you find content and creators that encourage you to explore experiences you might not otherwise see.”

It will show you a variety of videos, regardless of whether they are aligned to your interests or not, and then develop a stream of content based off of signals collected by artificial intelligence aimed to maximize user engagement.

Many studies have found that debunking misinformation is unlikely to be effective in changing people’s attitudes once the information has already been spread. TikTok’s current regulations do not do enough to filter videos that encourage eating disorders, offer dangerous exercise advice, and promote feelings of body shame.

Given its prominence in popular culture, TikTok should take the initiative to set an example and create new standards in the tech industry that do not encourage such trends.

In Photos: Life under lockdown

From working on the front lines to coping with aloneness — the lives of five U of T students across Canada

In Photos: Life under lockdown

Michael’s Toronto apartment, where he’s spending lockdown. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

Michael Phoon
Fourth-year, specialist in journalism
Toronto, ON

Enduring lockdown has been stressful. Being stuck in a room for so long has made the air around me feel thinner. I am stuck by myself, an international student trapped in a foreign country with no hope of going home during this pandemic, so I can only pass the time by indulging in schoolwork, reading textbooks, and ordering food delivery online.

Gradually, as my daily routine has started to feel more normal, being able to order food in person and enjoying the company of friends and family have become the little things I miss the most.

Scamp, Charlotte’s parents’ dog, pictured while on a walk near her home in Kelowna, BC. CHARLOTTE HOOD/THE VARSITY

Charlotte Hood
Fourth-year, double major in neuroscience and psychology
Kelowna, BC

I never thought I would be living at home again, but I am grateful for every moment that I am. Our house is up in the mountains of Kelowna — a definite change from my downtown Toronto apartment, but a welcome one at that. I’ve been spending my days hiking and trail running with my parents’ dog, Scamp, in tow. While things may not feel normal right now, being outdoors has made physical distancing an inviting experience. Scamp’s company never hurts as well.

Watercolour renderings of Studio Ghibli characters, painted by Charmain Wong while at home. CHARMAIN WONG/THE VARSITY

Charmain Wong
Fourth-year, specialist in architecture
Edmonton, AB

Staying at home during the pandemic has made me all the more thankful for art. It has been both a reassurance and a source of freedom in a time when these two things feel scarce. With seemingly endless hours and all too many ideas, I have dipped my toes into new waters with collages and paper crafts, re-immersed myself in the medium of acrylic painting, and even found comfort in watercolouring my favourite childhood characters.

Michelle, wearing personal protective equipment in preparation to do her job as an active screening clerk. MICHELLE FORNASIER/THE VARSITY

Michelle Fornasier
Fourth-year, major in human biology and minor in physiology and human geography
Burlington, ON

I never once thought I would have a summer job that required me to wear a face shield every day. Yet, here I am. During the pandemic, I’ve been working as an active screening clerk at Joseph Brant, my local hospital. My job includes screening staff, approved visitors, and patients into the hospital. As a screening clerk, I also make hospital deliveries and assist patients with getting to their appointments at various clinics within the hospital.

I have been so grateful to be employed during this strange time, to play a very small role in helping out my community right now and of course, to be able to socialize with people who don’t live at my house!

Tennis courts in Vancouver were closed in mid-March to halt the spread of COVID-19. ANDREA KUNTJORO/THE VARSITY

Andrea Kuntjoro
Second-year, life sciences
Vancouver, BC

Lockdown closed many things, with tennis courts being one of them. This saddened me, as tennis was one of my favourite summer activities. But then this got me thinking about trying something different. I decided to start running, something that gave me flashbacks to the cross-country running competitions that I participated in as a kid. It was definitely a struggle at first, but it soon became my new favourite physically distant hobby.

On one of my runs, I brought my drone, and while passing by a pretty little park, I took this birds-eye photo of the tennis courts, which were chained closed.