Don't Trust TikTok for Medical Advice, Study Says

While the potential ban on TikTok might be concerning to users, a new study suggests that the real concern lies in the volume of health misinformation promoted on the social media platform.

On April 24, President Biden signed a bill that could put an end to TikTok. If ByteDance, TikTok's Chinese-based parent company, fails to sell the app within a year, it will be banned from app stores and networks in the United States.

Lawmakers say TikTok is a national security concern. However, if another company buys the platform, TikTok will likely remain available to the 170 million Americans who use the app.

Despite its popularity, this particular social media platform is known for promoting health misinformation. For example, reports show that content promoting self-harm and eating disorders to young adults occurs on TikTok every 39 seconds.

Other examples of concerning TikTok trends include:

  • Dousing the body in beer to boost skin tanning, AKA "beer tanning"
  • Using a "bone smashing" technique on the face to improve physical attractiveness
  • Eating only eggs and oranges to get so-called necessary nutrients
  • Trends involving "being your own dentist" by doing dental treatment at home
  • Workout plans like the "75 Hard" challenge that led to the hospitalization of one TikToker
  • Consuming borax, a potentially dangerous laundry additive, for its alleged health benefits

Researchers have analyzed health-related videos circulating on TikTok about COVID-19 and found that moderate misinformation was present in 22% of videos users viewed around 6.8 million times. High-level misinformation was present in 7% of videos viewed 9.4 million times on average.

More recently, research conducted by scientists from the University of Chicago analyzed TikTok to determine the amount and types of health information it contains, who's posting it, and how much of it is false.

Is medical advice on TikTok legit?

For the study, recently published in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the researchers focused on a specific health condition, so the analysis remained manageable. They chose hashtags related to sinusitis, a relatively common inflammatory nasal condition, including #sinusitis, #sinus, and #sinusinfection.

Using various metrics, including the Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool for Audiovisual Material, the team assessed 221 videos involving sinusitis. The videos had over 300 million views and were shared by 1 million TikTok users.

The videos included tips to cure sinus infections, information on symptoms, uploads marketing nasal-related products, and demonstrations on how to use nasal rinses.

Nearly 49% of the videos were uploaded by influencers without a medical background, 31% were posted by lay individuals, and 20% were created by medical professionals. The researchers found that most of the videos analyzed were categorized as educational.

However, less than 50% of educational videos uploaded by nonmedical influencers presented factual information. In contrast, nearly 80% of videos uploaded by laypeople and close to 84% of medical professionals' content contained facts about sinusitis.

In addition, videos uploaded by non-medically trained influencers and laypeople were more likely to have less-than-ideal harmful harm/benefit scores, hard-to-understand content, and lower quality scores than videos from medically trained TikTokers.

The team also found that non-medically trained influencers were more likely to have several uploads in the samples they analyzed, which means their videos were more visible to TikTok users.

In a press release, senior author Christopher Roxbury, M.D., a surgeon and rhinology expert at UChicago Medicine, said, "I frequently have patients in the clinic asking me questions about things they saw online or on social media, and I have found that many times the information has steered patients in the wrong direction. In some cases, I see patients who have already sought out and undergone such treatment without any benefit; in rarer cases, they've been harmed."

Addressing medical misinformation on TikTok

According to the investigators, while high-quality health content is on the platform, people may have difficulty discerning whether the information is helpful or harmful. They say the study's findings underscore the need for doctors and medical professionals to increase their presence on TikTok and other social media platforms to counteract potentially harmful health misinformation.

Whether TikTok will eventually be banned in the U.S. remains to be seen. Meanwhile, people who view health and medical-related videos on the platform should consider who is posting the information and do their own research using reputable sources. Individuals can also seek medical advice about health conditions and treatments from their healthcare provider instead of relying on social media platforms.

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