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TikTok Misinformation Is Dangerous

TikTok Misinformation – A Mental Health Alert

Everyone has heard of TikTok. It’s a social media sensation and success story with over 800,000,000 users. It was immediately popular, and use has skyrocketed because of pandemic restrictions. It turns out that people love to make and watch short videos of popular dances, and trending topics like makeup, fashion, cooking, etc. This article will focus on how people, particularly Gen Z, are influenced by TikTok misinformation videos about health and wellness.

We all constantly hear about misinformation these days. This is nothing new when it comes to the media we consume. It’s just ramped up by how quickly technology allows people to put it out to the public. In the case of TikTok, and all social media, content creators focus mainly on getting views. Being accurate and balanced takes a back seat, if considered at all. Katrina Catchlove wrote a conference paper that explains: “Generation Z are increasingly vulnerable to being victims of a diet culture that is toxic, which has implications such as low self-esteem, body image issues, and disordered eating.” If you’d like to take a deep dive into this, you can read Katrina’s paper HERE.

Generation Z, being largely adolescents, is the most susceptible to TikTok misinformation about health and wellness. Loyalty to ‘influencers’ amplifies the problem. Influencers are popular figures on TikTok, and may be misinformed themselves. They reinforce this bad advice through content like “What I Eat in a Day” videos, which are spread and popularized by the services’ algorithms. Gen Z viewers often embrace this fad culture.

What Are The Influencers Influencing?

Influencers raving about these fads tends to cause people to respond favorably towards them. As you may have noticed, TikTok users are the most likely to imitate and repeat content created by those they admire. Many of the videos you may see while swiping through your feed, from diet promotions to calorie counting, are centered around health and wellness. Influencers gain power through mass followings and trusting relationships. As a result, they suddenly feel authoritative about informing others about nutrition and exercise. Dietician Abbey Sharp warns that this type of content can be damaging to teenagers’ health
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A Case In Point

Wellness company Rae released a product called Metabolism Drops to aid weight loss in adults. TikTok influencers swooped in. The consequence is they effectively, even if unintentionally, promoted these drops to their followers. It went viral, without medical advice, and caused usage of the drops to spread throughout the teenage community. This TikTok misinformation led teens to purchase and consume high dosages, which were proven ineffective, and even harmful. Influencers create emotional connections with their followers through engagement, and a portrayal of openness. This may be genuine, or very carefully crafted. They come across as real by sharing their lives, and viewers feel like they know them on a personal level. Followers are less likely to fact-check influencers on what they post, which leaves no platform for correction.

A previous Sirona Therapy article, Beauty Weight and Worth – How It’s Used Against You lays out the origins of the manufactured ideal body type. This unrealistic standard has increased over time and is still ongoing. TikTok misinformation is spread by influencers who have the perceived “ideal” body type. They encourage calorie-cutting diets, extra exercise, focus on looking thin, and body-enhancing surgeries. It makes us believe these behaviors are the answer to achieving this perceived perfect body, when we see this type of content. The definition of beauty is still tied to weight. Outcomes are commonly not good, when trying to attain this supposed ideal goal. Many experience physical and mental exhaustion, lowered self-esteem, money lost, health problems, anxiety, and depression.

Fads That Need To Fade

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Watch out for TikTok profiles that glorify unhealthy and unrealistic images, fad diets, and other obsessive behaviors. Viewers are encouraged to severely restrict calories by trending influencer videos like “pro-ana”(pro-anorexia), “thinspo” (thinspiration), and “What I Eat in a Day – Under X Calories”. These videos encourage people to lose unhealthy amounts of weight through advice and challenges. While TikTok allows us to report or flag this triggering content, the reality is that it doesn’t keep us from seeing these very same types of videos again. TikTok instructs their moderators to flag content they consider harmful, such as pro-ana. Sounds great, right? However, there’s also this…

Alleged TikTok Lies And Hypocrisy

An exposé written by Hana R. Alberts in the NY Post alleges discrimination against videos that don’t show an ideal of beauty. The article claims that TikTok instructed their moderators to suppress videos showing things like “fat” people and run-down houses. A user’s content might be kept out of the For You section of TikTok for having: “ugly facial appearance”, “dwarfism”, “eye disorders”, “too many wrinkles”, and “abnormal body shape”. They call these “algorithmic punishments”, while those they define as attractive receive “algorithmic praise”. They are funneled through the algorithm to be the posts we see the most. Seems too shocking to believe? I thought so too, but the article begs to differ. TikTok claims to care about negatively impacting at-risk people. But, for self serving reasons, they are throwing gas on the fire that is toxic body culture-allegedly.

Mass flagging got these potentially harmful videos off the platform, but this has led to a spin-off of pro-ana. Italian pediatrician Giuseppe Logrieco writes in an NIH paper that anti-pro-ana videos, officially aimed at raising awareness on anorexia, are much more prevalent. Unlike explicit pro-ana videos, these videos are not subject to banning. Anti-pro-ana claims to highlight mental disorders, and instill fear in those who promoted or romanticized them. However, the influencers in these categories are frequently competitive. They try to prove they are the worst off by showing weight, calorie intake, and other examples of how they’re “sick.” Logrieco emphasizes that teens are already in a fragile state of their lives. He cautions that seeing this content can cause problems with body image to surface.

AI Spreads TikTok Misinformation

TikTok has an algorithm that records data from each user. It suggests videos similar to those you’ve watched. Their AI uses this data to create a personalized “For You” page. The suggested videos can be from any user on the platform, not just from accounts you follow. Lets’ say, for example, someone comes across and views an eating disorder video on their homepage. They become curious and search for similar videos. The algorithm will then continuously suggest similar videos.
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TikTok’s algorithm is designed to create a specific identity based on your personality and interests. It then floods you with recommendations that fit your digital profile. This can create an echo chamber of misinformation, and amplify the risk of exposure to it. A viewer’s For You feed may end up contributing to the development of obsessive behaviors, such as eating disorders, and other modes of self-harm. Algorithms aren’t able to sort between harmless and harmful content.

Should You Just Live In a Cave?

No, TikTok can be fun and informative in a positive way. Be aware, also, that there is a dark side to this. An excellent way to steer clear of the influencers, trends, and algorithms is to view videos from the “Following” section. Avoid the “For You” feed, which is influenced by algorithmically popular content, and possible TikTok misinformation. Talk to your children about how social media and cultural influences can make it seem like there is an ideal image of beauty and health we should all fit into. Explain that human bodies are wonderfully diverse, and they need to find what works best for them. Emphasize that being healthy is superior to worrying about how others perceive your looks.

Don’t let TikTok define your health. Redefine it to be holistic and ever changing, dealing with the mind, body, and spirit. Rather than outward appearance, Sirona Therapy focuses on your inner qualities to develop a strong and confident sense of self. Your beauty and self worth are not defined by an app.

Sirona Therapy Westchester Putnam Rockland Intern Jade Sherman Blog Post Picture
Jade Sherman
Sirona Therapy

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