Jaz loves TikTok. Like the rest of us, she downloaded it to watch funny videos of chonky cats and British people being extremely British, and can while away hours in search of good content until her thumbs cramp up and her eyes sting. But in amongst all the light-hearted humour, her scrolling is occasionally interrupted by the unexpected arrival of some darker videos on the app’s landing page.
'What I eat in a day' videos have racked up more than 3 billion views on Tik Tok, but for Jaz - who's noticed that some of these triggering videos don’t feature much food at all - they can be "upsetting and plant a strange seed of thought." She tells Cosmopolitan: "It makes me feel self-conscious, as if what I’m doing is wrong or not normal." Spending increased time on TikTok and seeing this sort of content has resulted in a lot of negative feelings for Jaz towards her physical appearance - specifically, towards her weight.
TikTok truly came into its own this year, thanks largely to lockdown and how it enabled escapism during these uncertain and scary times. In March 2020, TikTok had its biggest month ever with 115 million global downloads, 745,000 of which were from the UK. TikTok didn't blast out of nowhere, though; it's popularity has been steadily rising for quite some time. Since launching in September 2016, the video-sharing app has been downloaded over 2 billion times worldwide.
Its target audience is undeniably young people: 41% of all TikTok users are aged between 16-24. But worryingly, this means that triggering videos like the ones 20-year-old Jaz has been exposed to are reaching an already vulnerable age group, given that people between the ages of 14-25 are also most at risk of suffering from an eating disorder. Young women in particular are most at risk. There are numerous factors involved in the onset of an eating disorder, but society’s narrow beauty standards - with women still largely being expected to be white, cisgender, able-bodied and thin - certainly don't help.
On top of the jarring 'what I eat in a day' style videos, there’s a disturbing amount of triggering pro-ana [pro-anorexia] content on TikTok. The "so you think I’m skinny" sound effect has over 5000 videos, with many featuring women who could be underweight. The hashtag "#weightloss" has over 8.7 billion views. Misinformation is also rife: many videos promote drinking black coffee to speed up your metabolism, but according to the NHS website, the evidence behind this claim is "weak".
20-year-old Poppy* has also found herself on a slippery slope after encountering extreme exercise content on TikTok. "I’ve come across a lot of exercise videos which have made me feel pressure to try and achieve a perfect body. I have saved so many ab workout videos to try and copy," she tells Cosmopolitan. While workout videos are not harmful in and of themselves, the focus on TikTok often remains on making your body look a certain way, rather than the mental and physical health benefits of regular exercise. For Poppy, videos that prioritise aesthetics over health have significantly worsened her self-image.
The thing is, there’s not much control over what you see on TikTok. One of the app’s unique features is its FYP, or 'For You Page', which uses an algorithm to push new clips into the spotlight and means you don’t even have to be following someone to see them on the app’s landing page.
"You can’t choose what you view on the FYP so I am constantly seeing videos on dieting and exercise," Poppy says. "More and more girls are making videos like this and it’s hard to avoid them. Once you’ve viewed one, TikTok keeps showing you more." Poppy has had to block several accounts in an effort to stop her mental health declining, but, in her experience, triggering content is pretty much unavoidable on the FYP no matter how many accounts you block.
Pro-ana content is by no means a problem unique to TikTok. In its heyday, Tumblr was notorious for its "thinspo" accounts. Both Facebook and Instagram have also been criticised for their impact on eating disorders. However, both have now banned posts that "glamourise" eating disorders and in September 2019 both platforms implemented a new policy which imposed tighter restrictions on posts relating to diet products and cosmetic surgery. Facebook told Cosmopolitan that since the policy’s implementation, they’ve been successfully scrutinising and removing more potentially harmful content. They also said that they continually review their policies with the help of experts, including representatives from BEAT, the UK’s eating disorder charity.
Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, who currently sits on Facebook’s Suicide and Self-Injury Advisory Board, contributed to this policy. She rightly makes the point that it is hard to compare TikTok to platforms such as Instagram, given the fact that videos are a lot harder to moderate than text-based posts. At present, picking up on nuances and filtering through video content which subtly engenders disordered eating can only be done by real people, not computers. "Moderating videos is more time-consuming than moderating text-based posts, so their human content moderators need longer to do their jobs," she explains. But Dr. Gerrard also makes the point that TikTok still need to put in a "tonne of effort" to keep the app safe for younger users, as well as work with more experts.
At present, TikTok’s community guidelines state that raising awareness for mental illness is allowed, but content promoting damaging eating habits is banned. Yet it still seems some videos manage to slip through the net. BEAT’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, says that BEAT "strongly encourages social media platforms to do more to ensure such content cannot be posted."
Upon reaching out, a TikTok spokesperson told Cosmopolitan that "TikTok is a space for positive, creative expression and our Community Guidelines make clear the type of content that is not acceptable on TikTok."
Of course, it’s worth noting that lots of young women do find positive spaces on TikTok. "Social media can be beneficial for so many people," Dr. Gerrard believes. "It’s introduced young women to more diverse representations of body sizes, shapes, colours, ages, and abilities." Jaz especially enjoys the more uplifting content she finds on TikTok, and in particular videos made by Ambar Driscoll.
Ambar is outspoken about issues pertaining to poor body image, a topic close to her heart. "I struggled with my body for years, and have been through so many stages of disordered eating as well as bulimia," she tells Cosmopolitan. "I started posting body confidence TikTok videos because I think it’s important that people see there’s an alternative to wanting to change your body. It was this kind of content which helped me recover and value my body for more than just the way it looks."
Unsurprisingly, her content has been warmly welcomed. Comments under one video read: "this is what I needed to see"; "this is so important and should be addressed more";"really needed this video today".
It's imperative that popular platforms like TikTok ensure they find ways of moderating video-based content quickly and effectively to prevent triggering content falling through the net. And until then, all we can do is appreciate the refreshing presence of influencers like Ambar, who are working to have a positive impact among their communities. As she says herself, "it’s important to have spaces on social media that exist solely to spread positivity."
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