TikTok’s diet videos: a hidden threat to youth’s mental health

According to an investigation, the popular Chinese social network offers videos that are not suitable for younger audiences, which encourage them to pursue extreme weight loss goals

An alarming investigation by the Wall Street Journal has shed light on the profound influence of diet and weight loss videos on TikTok, highlighting the platform’s potential role in exacerbating eating disorders among young users. Through the creation of hundreds of fake accounts that interacted with the app minimally, mimicking the behavior of young users, the investigation revealed a worrying trend: the more these accounts engaged with content related to alcohol, gambling, and weight loss, the more the TikTok algorithm adjusted to flood the “For You” page with diet and slimming videos.

The algorithm’s influence

Throughout the experiment, the artificial intelligence within TikTok viewed approximately 255,000 videos, 32,700 of which contained descriptions or metadata matching a list of hundreds of keywords related to weight loss. Alarmingly, 11,615 videos featured text descriptions with keywords relevant to eating disorders, while 4,402 videos combined keywords in a way that seemed to normalize these disorders. To bypass social reporting, some video descriptions cleverly misspelled eating disorder-related keywords, using numbers or asterisks as substitutes.

Tiktok’s response

In response to the journalistic report, TikTok announced it is developing new methods to ensure safer content consumption on the platform. This includes a strategy to identify videos that, while not violating TikTok’s policies, could be harmful if viewed excessively, and a tool allowing users (or their parents, for younger users) to block videos containing specific words or hashtags from appearing on their “For You” page.

Despite TikTok’s spokesperson stating that the Wall Street Journal’s experiment does not reflect the experience of most TikTok users, they acknowledged that even one person affected is one too many. The platform allows content that is educational or recovery-oriented to be shared, understanding it can provide hope. However, content promoting, normalizing, or glorifying disordered eating is prohibited.

A broader issue

TikTok is not the only social media platform caught in the storm of negative influence on its younger audience. Another investigation by the Wall Street Journal highlighted Instagram’s severe impact on teenagers’ mental health, eroding girls’ self-esteem and self-image.

Following this research, Instagram introduced features designed to deter teens from engaging with potentially harmful content and added a “Take a Break” function to encourage users to close the app after spending a certain amount of time on it, ranging from 10 to 30 minutes.

Sources: TikTok / Wall Street Journal

The article draws upon studies published and recommendations from international institutions and/or experts. We do not make claims in the medical-scientific field and report the facts as they are. Sources are indicated at the end of each article.
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