As social media has taken hold on society, new apps with new forms of online social interactions are popping up continuously. The most popular one recently is TikTok, which has been downloaded over 2.6 billion times. TikTok’s audience has a wide age range from 13–60-year-olds creating videos and watching them. In an online world full of posts including words or pictures, TikTok offers a unique medium of posting short (15 seconds-3 minutes) videos. While other social media platforms allow you to “follow” other people and see posts from those you follow, TikTok has this option but also introduced the “For You Page,” an endless reel of viral videos catered specifically to you based on an algorithm of content you have interacted with. From this type of interaction, TikTok (and other social media platforms) creates an environment where it is normal for anyone to comment or react to a post regardless of whether they actually know the other individual.
While you can spend many hours laughing at TikTok videos and sending them to friends and family, there might also be some harmful aspects of the app that get overlooked. With the For You Page as the primary stage for interaction and influence, there is less control over what viewers may be exposed to. While you can learn a lot about various subjects, thanks to the For You Page, there are videos that are potentially harmful with regard to body image and eating concerns.
Part of TikTok’s online culture is having different types of videos or “challenges” trend by having a large number of creators remake the same type of video. For example, one trend involves making a video compilation of what you eat in a day. On the surface this seems harmless, but the problem arises when eating habits promote extreme dieting or weight loss or jokes about only consuming coffee and nicotine in a day. Other trends related to body image and eating include weight-loss journeys and eating disorder recovery journeys. The National Eating Disorder Association considers mass media an “influential context for people to learn about body ideals and the value placed on being attractive,” and TikTok is no exception.
Although TikTok has community guidelines that prohibit content encouraging eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss, creators have found loopholes to keep their videos up like using numbers or other symbols to replace letters in inappropriate words. This allows their videos to go undetected for removal. While other social media platforms mostly stick to showing content posted by your friends or from accounts that you follow, TikTok’s For You Page allows you to see content posted from any public account, making it more difficult to control the videos that come across your screen. Furthermore, you can block or express that you are “not interested” in videos that do show up on your For You Page, but that does not guarantee that similar videos won’t reappear. The younger generation that dominates TikTok has made strides in the importance of good mental health and encourages users with potentially sensitive content to have “trigger warnings” in the videos or in the caption of videos. However, the videos are so short and random that it’s difficult to skip the video before the damage is already done as dietician Staci Belcher explained in an article in The Red & Black.
While TikTok has tried to limit harmful content itself, users might consider limiting the amount of time they spend on the app, sticking to the videos posted by users they follow, and actively blocking or reporting content they do not wish to see.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, Illinois State University’s Student Counseling Services offers three different group workshops to help students combat societal body standards in a safe and fun way. Visit counseling.illinoisstate.edu/outreach/body-project/ to register and to learn more about the Body Project, More than Muscles, and the Female Athlete Body Project.