TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past 6 months, as people all over the world are using the app to creatively express themselves and connect with others. However, there is a lot of content on the app that promotes unhealthy relationships with food that can trigger someone who has suffered or is suffering with an eating disorder to relapse, or worse, lead TikTok users to develop eating disorders themselves. Even though some may argue that TikTok has cultivated positive connections for users to experience, TikTok’s minimal efforts to restrict the amount of pro-eating disorder videos are having detrimental impacts on young users. TikTok has a responsibility to restrict the publication of toxic videos that glorify eating disorders in order to protect its viewers, especially its adolescent users.

The Dangerous “For You Page”

TikTok became extremely popular in the past six months, as the app now has 800 million users! The app enables its users to create videos and connect with friends. Through the app’s algorithm of a FYP (For You Page), suggested videos automatically appear on each user’s feed. The personalized FYP showcases content that is similar to other videos that each user has interacted with. 

The FYP can become a problem if a user has come in contact with dangerous content… even if a user didn’t like or share or comment on a harmful video, just because they viewed it, more similar videos will clog their FYP. In a world that harps on weight loss, this leads users to be left scrolling aimlessly through videos that promote thinning oneself, some of which can be extremely dangerous. A 19 year old woman in England reported spending 40% of her time on TikTok viewing weight loss related content. TikTok’s “thinspiration” videos led her to spend 85 euros on a gym membership and new personalized fitness plan. She explained, “My attitude towards my body was so negative after (scrolling through TikTok), I thought that could be the only thing to change it.” 

Unhealthy Eating Is Trending

Not only are the videos seen on users’ FYPs just promoting weight loss, some of these are “pro-anorexia” and “pro-bulimia”; in other words, users are exposed to TikTok videos that encourage engagement in eating disorder behaviors. For example, there are new trending videos on TikTok, which entail eating less than 1,200 calories a day and consuming extremely low calorie snacks. One popular trend is eating carrots with mustard, which has next to no caloric value. Many of the users posting pro-eating disorder videos are promoting diets of less than 900 calories a day, which is immensely harmful to one’s health. Other trends on TikTok include “quick fixes” (or ways to lose weight fast) like drinking apple cider vinegar. Due to the science behind the FYP, if a user views one video with such content, they will automatically be shown more videos like it. When users view this sort of content, they assume that partaking in these eating habits will make them look thin (or as skinny as the users making these videos.) Realistically, if a user were to mimic such restrictive diets, they would seriously damage their health.  

Social Media’s Damaging Effects

The toxic content on TikTok is the most dangerous to young viewers, and there are a lot of them. 41% of Tik Tok users are between the ages of 16 and 24. And although TikTok states that users under the age of 18 need to receive approval from a guardian, there are plenty of ways to avoid this requirement. The app also states that you must be 13 to have access, but there are many tweens (10, 11, and 12 year olds) that have accounts. 

The pre-teen and teenage years are the most formative time of a girl’s life, and it’s when many girls develop eating disorders or body image issues. Young adolescents’ exposure to social media platforms that glorify eating disorders can have a large impact on their self image and their relationship with eating. A National Eating Disorder Awareness associate explained, “younger folks are particularly vulnerable to external messages – including those around food and appearance.” Because teenage brains do not fully develop until the age of 25, younger users on social media are not capable of appropriately judging how realistic or unrealistic the content that they view really is. Marisol Touraine, France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health, stated that “exposing young people to normative and unrealistic images of bodies leads to a sense of self depreciation and poor self esteem that can impact health related behavior.” 

Younger users of social media are so vulnerable because of their high impressionability. All of the messages that social media, including TikTok, sends to its adolescent users open the door to learn about unhealthy behaviors and for them to compare themselves to others. According to a study conducted at the National Eating Disorder Association, social media users showed that higher Instagram usage was associated with a greater prevalence of orthorexia symptoms (an eating disorder in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods due to the belief that they are harmful). This showcases the psychological damage that social media usage can cause.

There are multiple factors of social media use that can be detrimental to young users’ physical and mental health. For example, body objectification occurs when social media users seek validation by defining their worth by how many likes, comments, or shares their posts receive. Comparison also occurs when users utilize social media to judge one’s realistic self against others’ “high-light reels,” leading to the development of low self worth. Social media is also flooded with triggers that can cause users to develop a sudden urge to lose weight or engage in disordered behavior (for example, a post about a new intense workout regime may make a user feel that they need to excessively work out and strive to lose weight.) 

TikTok’s Role in the Matter

In order to prevent the posting of toxic videos, TikTok has created community guidelines that indicate that content which showcases “self harm” including that of which “promotes eating habits that are likely to cause health issues” or “supports pro-ana or dangerous behaviors to lose weight” will be removed from the app. Tik Tok also eliminated the option for users to search up phrases such as “pro-anorexia” or “pro-ana” (along with “pro-bulimia” and “pro-mia”) when looking for a video. Some posts on the app discuss how weight loss can be accomplished in a safe way, with methods of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle habits. As mentioned previously, not all of the content that surrounds weight loss and eating disorders on TikTok is necessarily toxic. Because of these factors, some people argue that TikTok has substantial regulations in place to limit the amount of harmful material that’s available to viewers.

Unfortunately, TikTok has not enforced these community guidelines as strictly as they have promised, as there are still a variety of videos that introduce dangerous behaviors to users every day. As for eliminating the “pro-anorexia” option from the search bar, users have found ways around this regulation by misspelling the phrase (ex: “pro-anrxia”) to find videos that encourage anorexia that are still present on the app. TikTok may have regulations in place, but they are not effective in fully eliminating harmful content from the app. 

The Bright Side of TikTok

Even though social media can be a platform for the publication of toxic content, there are many accounts that provide a sense of support and community to adolescents suffering from eating disorders. On TikTok specifically, there are users that illustrate real and non fabricated journeys of eating disorder recovery through their posts. There are also users that  guide their followers away from harmful pro-eating disorder content and showcase how misleading posts on social media can be. For example, Victoria Garrick is a division one collegiate athlete who has become a viral TikToker with her posts regarding body positivity and her promotion of intuitive eating and listening to your body. Chris Henrie, an anorexia awareness and recovery advocate, uses TikTok to share his experiences in an inpatient facility for anorexia. His story gained tons of positive feedback, and other users who have struggled or know someone that struggled with anorexia find support in his hopeful messages. 

As helpful as these accounts are, they do not negate the fact that harmful videos are still out there. For every TikTok that saves a user that is struggling with disordered eating, another TikTok instills negative self worth and encourages disordered eating patterns to another user. The positive TikToks are a great way to stop the damage that social media can bring to young users. However, TikTok needs to take a stand to protect their users from the harmful content presented on their app, and further promote the bright sides of TikTok instead.

How to Fix This

Creators of TikTok, who are older and more mature than the majority of their users, have a responsibility to actively monitor the posts, while keeping in mind how young and impressionable the viewers are. This is not an easy task for TikTok to face, but it’s a necessary one. Tik Tok can be a place for creative expression and provide sources of support and community, but the damaging videos must be addressed.  

As for the individuals using TikTok, in order to avoid toxic material, it’s important to be mindful of the posts that you interact with. There is a feature on the app that enables you to click “Not Interested” on a video. Users should strive to utilize this feature every time a video appears on their FYP that could be potentially harmful to their mental or physical health. There’s also a petition to “stop promoting deadly eating disorders on Tiktok” created by the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association that people can sign! Their goal is to hold Tiktok accountable for the damage that weight loss and diet videos are causing to users. Finally, users should use TikTok in a positive way and interact with other users or posts that make them feel good about themselves!