TikTok is very harmful for people with eating disorders, doctors and experts say.
This is because the video app very quickly shows people who are sensitive to it a continuous stream of videos on that subject, without them having to look them up themselves. This is according to research by RTL Nieuws, De Groene Amsterdammer and Utrecht University. TikTok’s moderators can do little about it.
A new user who opens TikTok for the first time can find themselves in a stream of videos about eating disorders within just half an hour. This was discovered by RTL Nieuws and De Groene Amsterdammer by creating new user accounts that automatically started scrolling through the app.
All users are shown videos on TikTok that closely match their interests. TikTok manages to derive those preferences from something very simple: how long you keep watching a video. Liking videos and following accounts is possible, but not necessary. This makes TikTok work fundamentally different from a competitor like Instagram, where users have to actively seek out and follow other accounts themselves.
Unsolicited eating disorder videos
Those preferences lead to increasingly specific niches.
During the study, researchers discovered three routes leading from general interests to eating disorders. Their automatic accounts were instructed to spend slightly longer watching videos that were about dieting, sports or fitness. They did not specifically search for eating disorders, but they were shown those videos anyway. When they did, they stuck with them for as long as they did with videos that matched their other interests.
They saw that videos about dieting became increasingly intense until it was about extreme weight loss and eventually anorexia. An interest in fitness videos follows a similar pattern. And those who like watching thin women, as in K-pop videos, get videos of even thinner women.
Susceptibility to eating disorders
The automatic accounts from the study are not quite the same as real people, who have more diverse interests. But that excessive interest does fit with the sensitivity to eating disorder videos that people with a predisposition to it have, experts say.
Read the whole article in Dutch on RTL News