The app has some videos that promote self-diagnosis of mental health, which could have serious effects for young people.
If your young adult patients rely on TikTok for their health information, you’re going to have some explaining to do.
The trendy video app has information about sexual health, diet, and exercise, but not much else. Influencers’ “role model appeals” on topics such as diet and exercise also tend to be more popular than expert medical advice, according to a new study published in the Journal of Health Communication.
It appears there’s a communication gap with young patients that researchers hope could be filled by physicians, other health care providers, and state and federal agencies willing to share their knowledge, according to a news release.
“Authentic stories about people’s lives tended to generate a lot more engagement than a person in a white coat sharing their opinion,” lead author Nicole O’Donnell, PhD, said in the news release. O’Donnell is a Washington State University (WSU) assistant professor of communications. “And so, one strategy we would recommend is to have health professionals find ways to share people’s authentic stories while also providing credible and reliable information.”
The researchers said scientists still are trying to understand user patterns for TikTok, which is newer than social media websites and apps Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. They analyzed 400 health-related videos from TikTok’s #EduTok campaign.
Most of the videos focused on mental health, diet, exercise, and sexual health, “areas of interest likely influenced by TikTok’s younger audiences,” the researchers said.
Collecting the most views were videos with “role model appeals,” such as a famous actress or sports star encouraging a healthier lifestyle. Also popular were videos meant to shock or scare people away from certain behaviors.
“But both these types of videos often lacked essential factual information and fell short of promoting attainable behavior changes,” the news release said.
“Almost 50% of the videos had role model appeals in them,” coauthor Sultana Ismet Jerin said in the news release. Jerin is a WSU doctoral student in communications. “Our results indicate that audiences highly engage with personal stories. The emotional appeal of the content is also a factor that influences audience engagement. In another study, we are specifically looking at emotional appeals of mental health messaging to learn more about engagement as mental health videos appeared the least engaging although being the most frequently covered health topic in EduTok videos.”
TikTok was lacking in videos about topics relevant to teenagers, such as substance abuse prevention, bullying, and sexual violence prevention. But the researchers noted a number of videos promoted self-diagnosis of mental health issues, which could have potentially serious implications, O’Donnell said.
“Videos of people self-diagnosing their depression, anxiety or other issues related to mental health tended to have very high engagement which is a problematic trend that we would hope to have some public messaging about in the future,” O’Donnell said. “We plan to look more closely at the topic of mental health in general and the emotional appeals that creators are using.”