Weighing the risks: Researcher examines toxic health messages on TikTok

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When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Kaitlyn Fortune started seeing what she calls “a lot of weight trash” posted on social media platform TikTok.

And as the world reopens, the master’s student in sociology at Memorial University in St. John’s says that’s still a problem.

Social media jokes about pandemic-related weight gain — “COVID-19,” as in 19 Extra Pounds, for example, and also “Quarantine 15” — have paved the way for TikTok to go toxic, she found, with users saying things like, “You gained weight in quarantine, now it’s time to get your ‘reopening body’ back.”

Fortune was struck by how negative it was.

“We just survived a pandemic,” Fortune said. “So that’s the dichotomy I’d like to look at in TikTok.”

Fortune focused its research on weight stigma, interviewing Canadian platform users between the ages of 18 and 35 who identify as female, fat, and experienced weight stigma.

She said she was surprised by her findings, as people in her study talked more about body acceptance and how TikTok had helped them.

“It seems like for my participants, the positive videos won out,” she said. “It was really encouraging to see this. Despite all the other trash that happened during the pandemic, there were enough activists and creators talking about it that it affected their lives.”

Search on TikTok is missing

Social media, especially Instagram, has a bad reputation when it comes to influencing young girls and their body image.

It’s no surprise there’s public health utility with TikTok, said Marco Zenone, a research associate at the University of British Columbia and a doctoral student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“What we find on TikTok is that it could be a great force for public health in many ways. At the same time, it can’t be a force for public health either. Because the algorithm of TikTok is so powerful, it really matches you with the content you want to see. It’s really good at that,” he said.

If someone watches body-positive videos on the platform, Zenone said, they’re more likely to see body-positive videos. But if their interest is losing weight, these are the videos they will see.

Researchers and others have criticized TikTok for activating the virus messages that allegedly promote eating disorders. Earlier this year, the company said it was even more crack down on content.

Zenone said the company is willing to get rid of content promoting eating disorders by taking steps like removing hashtags.

“TikTok is so huge. It’s a massive platform. A billion people, really young people. And we really don’t know that much about it, which is kind of scary when you think about the size of a billion people is,” he said.

Marco Zenone is a research associate at the University of British Columbia and a doctoral student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (Submitted by Marco Zenone)

It’s also why he said the research Fortune is doing is great to see.

“I kind of want to believe what the push is — we’re just tired. Dieting is exhausting,” she said. “I think it’s a reminder of what we’re supposed to do, which is to eat food and be in our bodies and move our bodies.”

Although Fortune was surprised that people had positive experiences, there were always negative comments in her interviews. She heard people’s anger at not being able to fit into the clothes or being seen as accepted by society.

Fortune is set to begin her doctorate at Memorial in the fall, examining the culture of food and wellness and what it means to live outside of it. This summer, she plans to launch a diet culture podcast.

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