Social media giant TikTok has announced it will actively ban videos that encourage tanning and add educational content to its platform after alarm from Australian medical experts over the platform’s sharing of pro-tanning material.
In September, Melanoma Institute Australia co-medical directors Prof Georgina Long and Prof Richard Scolyer, speaking at the National Press Club, took issue with the video-sharing app for its popular #sunburnchallenge hashtag.
Speaking alongside Olympian and melanoma survivor Cate Campbell, Long warned social media influencers were glamorising tanning with hashtags like “sunburnt tanlines”, which had more than 200m views.
She urged platforms, television stations and influencers to “change the cultural narrative around sunburn and tanning” in Australia, which, alongside New Zealand, has the highest skin cancer incidence and mortality rate in the world.
In response to the backlash, TikTok has announced a widespread education campaign that will impose a pop-up banner for an anti-tanning content – and for all searches around tanning, summer and sunburn.
The campaign, targeting people between 20 and 39, will also remove “concerning content” related to “dangerous” tanning activities, including the popular #sunburnchallenge hashtag, which has more than 8.4m views worldwide.
The TikTok trend encourages users to post videos of their most painful, blistering sunburns, “awkward tan-lines” and peeling skin for dramatic effect, with tips on reducing the severity of a burn.
TikTok’s general manager in Australia and New Zealand, Lee Hunter, said the platform would encourage user-generated content about sun safety and the dangers of melanoma among young people.
Melanoma is the most common form of cancer among 20 to 39-year-olds in Australia and the nation’s most deadly form of skin cancer, accounting for more than 1,000 deaths a year.
Cancer Australia estimates 17,756 new cases of melanoma of the skin will be diagnosed in 2022, making it the third most common cancer nationwide behind prostate cancer and breast cancer.
“We’ll actively promote the creator content related to the campaign, which means everyone aged between 20 and 39 will see the message,” Hunter said.
“And everyone who searches for a hashtag related to summer sun, tanning and many other summer time phrases will see the … banner and will be provided with information that outlines the dangers of tanning.”
The platform’s first video features youthful Australian influencer “starr” lathering sunscreen on a beach and dismissing tanning to her alter ego as “cooked”.
The Melanoma Institute Australia chief executive, Matthew Browne, said it had been lobbying the social media platform for months to curb concerning content on its platform, which could influence young and susceptible social media users. Thirty-two per cent 32% of the platform’s users are between 16 and 24.
“Our medical directors put out a plea about the urgent need to stop the glamorisation of tanning, to save young lives, and we are delighted TikTok answered that call,” Browne said.
“One Aussie is diagnosed with melanoma every 30 minutes and it claims more lives than the national road toll. Tanning is actually skin cells in trauma.
“There is no safe way of sun tanning, including the concept of getting a protective ‘base tan’ at the start of summer.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president, Dr Nicole Higgins, said it was a “smart move” from TikTok amid the ongoing popularity for tanning among young people.
“We are having enough difficulty discouraging patients, particularly young people, from tanning themselves and risking skin cancer without social media platforms making that job even harder,” she said.
“We have the highest rates of skin cancer in the entire world, with more than 12,000 invasive melanoma diagnoses every single year.
“I cut melanomas out of people very regularly, including young people … What may seem glamorous or appealing can actually be deadly.”
TikTok has faced backlash in the past over viral challenges, including the “blackout challenge” where users to choked themselves until they passed out, and the “Benadryl challenge”, encouraging large intakes of antihistamines in an attempt to produce hallucinogenic effects.