TikTok and public health

TikTok is a rapidly growing short video-sharing social media platform that has gathered over 1 billion global users, but little is known about the potential health-related impacts on its users.

According to Skye Barbic, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Occupational Health and Occupational Therapy, “There are several potential issues of TikTok on global health, but really, the overarching issue is that we don’t know about the impact that it has on citizens of all kinds.”

In a paper released in November 2021, Barbic, along with research associate Marco Zenone and postdoctoral fellow Nikki Ow, called for public health researchers to examine the issue more closely.

Challenges ahead

However, according to Barbic, TikTok’s growing usage can make it a challenge to study rigorously.

“The biggest challenge is working with social media companies at large and how to keep up with the pace. Our research is renowned for being methodologically rigorous and has a very good process, but it takes some time,” she says.

For Skye Barbic, there are several potential issues of TikTok on global health. | Photo courtesy of Skye Barbic

“TikTok is just exceptionally rapid in its use and the extent it is being used, so we researchers have to adapt and make sure we are mobile and provide the information that public health needs.”

Barbic indicates that more needs to be understood about how the information that is shared on TikTok is being received by its end users, most of whom are young people.

“About 80 per cent of TikTok users are under the age of 30, so we have a lot more to learn in that space,” she explains. “How do we know the information that is shared on TikTok is evidence based, validated, and presented in a way so that the end user, in this case young people, can really understand it safely and be able to use the information in a way that’s meaningful to them?”

Additionally, Barbic says that there are several research priorities that public health researchers should consider when it comes to the platform.

“There are concerns that we highlight in commentary, such as the product promotion of health-harming products and substance use like vaping, and what are the impacts of that,” she points out. “There’s also, especially with COVID-19, a lot of medical advice that we need to understand more, and the misinformation and disinformation that is similar to other social media platforms.”

More research needed

Despite the limited research available on TikTok, Barbic and her team have noticed that the situation is starting to change since their call for action.

“There has been very little work done to study TikTok, but every day we are seeing more that is coming out,” she says. “Since we published our paper in November, there have been a couple new studies on alcohol use and vaping products on TikTok, some other research in areas with videos promoting diabetes and other physical conditions and more information coming out on how and by whom TikTok is used.”

Barbic is optimistic that her team’s commentary has influenced other researchers to study TikTok and to share information on the topic.

“I think hopefully our paper has sparked a lot of interest in this topic, and I am quite thrilled to see how many have picked it up and the far reach of it,” she says. “This kind of research involves being active in synthesizing the current events coming out, and really mapping it out systematically so that we are not doing research in our own silos and building on each other’s work.”

To read the full commentary and the proposed research agenda, visit here: https://gh.bmj.com/content/6/11/e007648.full