Videos of dance routines, cute animals and beauty tutorials have flourished on the social networking app that is TikTok. As with most social media platforms, this app has also seen negative content become popular amongst certain users. One such example is the proliferation of videos promoting starvation and other behaviours related to eating disorders.
TikTok recently launched an investigation into this after The Guardian found pro-anorexia content was easily accessible on the app despite previous measures taken by the social media platform to block weight loss advertisements.
With more than 800 million users across the world, half of those on TikTok are aged between 16 to 24 and are being exposed to this harmful content. According to The Guardian, the app has blocked some hashtags but popping the same words into search brings up profiles for accounts that promote eating disorders.
People have also found a way around the restrictions by slightly misspelling common words or using variants of words. After being presented with these findings by The Guardian, TikTok launched an investigation into the issue and said it has taken action to ban these phrases across all search verticals, including when searching for users on the app.
“As soon as this issue was brought to our attention, we took action banning the accounts and removing the content that violated those guidelines, as well as banning particular search terms,” a spokesperson for TikTok said. “As content changes, we continue to work with expert partners, update our technology and review our processes to ensure we can respond to emerging and new harmful activities.”
TikTok also banned six accounts that were flagged for violating the community guidelines that promoted dangerous eating habits. What is also concerning is the way TikTok’s For You page is curated. This is basically a feed of videos that are recommended based on your algorithm history. So, if you’re searching for weight loss content, chances are this will pop up in this section of your account.
“It takes little more than 30 seconds to find a pro-eating disorder account on TikTok and, once a user is following the right people, their For You page will quickly be flooded with content from similar users,” Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield, told The Guardian. “This is because TikTok is essentially designed to show you what it thinks you want to see.”
According to Gerrard, the app needs to go further in protecting users from this harmful content and simply restricting searches for content related to eating disorders isn’t enough. On the flip side, Gerrard acknowledged that choosing which content to remove and which to keep can be tricky.
“In particular, TikTok would need to be careful when limiting search results for usernames because some accounts might be pro-recovery, and there’s plenty of evidence to tell us how helpful social media can be for people with eating disorders,” she said.
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.