What Teens Need to Know About Evaluating Health Information on TikTok

It’s hard to avoid the lure of TikTok these days.

Our kids love it and we often get sucked into the entertainment when we hear them laughing hysterically or they share a favorite video with us. Those choreographed dances, incredible illusions, and adorable cat videos make it so easy to tumble down a TikTok rabbit hole and lose all track of time.

teen watching TikTok
A TikTok verified account is for “notable figures.” (twenty20 @dabobabo)

TikTok has seen a huge uptick in content uploaded

And we’re in good company. With the huge increase in content uploaded during the pandemic, 100 million Americans currently use TikTok each month, with more adults and professionals creating accounts all the time. People have realized it’s not simply a fun hangout for teen influencers, but a place to share expertise, educate the public, and increase business earnings. 

This has also made it yet another environment where teens are vulnerable to manipulation and susceptible to misinformation from supposed “experts” of all kinds, including health experts. 

The upside of having doctors and health-field authorities on TikTok is that stigmas can and are being shattered when it comes to many mental and physical health conditions. Teens can discover information and advice in easily digestible clips from the comfort and privacy of their own bedrooms, on any number of issues such as addiction, eating disorders, ADHD, neurodiversity, anxiety, and depression.

@dr.noc

#duet with @beamng.crashed Follow for actual facts, not spooky paranoia. #covid19 #coronavirus #covidvaccine #science #drnoc

♬ original sound – BeamNG.Drive
Real information can be useful.

What differentiates a true expert on TikTok?

While TikTok has community guidelines for what people can say on the platform, anyone who speaks with a tone of authority or has hundreds of thousands of followers might easily lead a teen into thinking they are highly qualified to dispense health advice. 

Like other social media networks, TikTok has a verification system and offers two types of verified account statuses that are both designated with the same blue tick mark next to a user’s account name.

The “Popular Creator” account is the easiest verification to attain and is awarded to users who have a robust number of followers, never explicitly specified by TikTok, and who abide by user guidelines and get a lot of engagement on their content. 

A “Verified” account is much harder to get and is usually given only to super-popular celebrity types and major organizations. Think Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner, or the NBA. 

But, TikTok doesn’t have any kind of application process for someone who wants to obtain a verified account. The coveted blue tick mark is handed out by TikTok staff when they want to reward a user for their quality content or for what they view as contributions to the network. In this inexact way, popular creators can get verified simply by following the rules, posting and commenting on a frequent basis, and by sharing content that is unique and “genuine” – not necessarily scientifically proven nor evidence-based. 

Teens can be misled about what is legitimate and what is not

Most adults are aware that some people may refer to themselves as a Life Coach or a Fitness Expert, although they lack professional or academic credentials. A teen who sees that same person with a blue tick mark next to their name and tens of thousands of followers or Likes on TikTok may assume they are dispensing safe and legitimate health tips and recommendations.

For instance, I recently performed a TikTok account search using the hashtag “mental health,” and one of the top accounts that popped up was for a professional looking and sounding man who posts daily videos on health and wellness topics. The account has over 33,000 followers and more than 250,000 likes.

His uplifting yet pseudo-science-y video messages caused me to follow the posted link to his own website to see what his credentials were. The link connected me to his “Mental Fitness Training” business site that contains no professional biography nor mention of any degrees or licensure but offers shoppers the opportunity to purchase many self-guided training videos for $35 each. 

Worse than just throwing away some money on products that probably won’t do what they claim they will, teens can fall prey to health misinformation that could potentially harm them. TikTok “experts” who are non-professionals may oversimplify serious health concerns or may cause a teen to self-diagnose a condition that they may not actually have. Common symptoms like sleep problems and impulsivity might make a teen think they have a mood disorder or ADHD, when they are simply experiencing typical aspects of life as an adolescent. 

How to help a teen with health questions about a TikTok video

If you hear a concern like, “I’m pretty sure I have an autoimmune disease (or “I’m bipolar” or “I know I have skin cancer”) or if you suspect your teen is hearing or sharing misinformation because of something they saw on TikTok, ask if you can sit with them and together watch the videos that they’ve been viewing. 

This can be a valuable, teachable moment when you can help your child walk through the process of researching someone’s credibility as an expert. What degree do they have? Where have they studied? Are they published in any professional journals? What organizations are they affiliated with? Most legitimate experts’ accounts will have links to their other social media platforms and websites, and if they don’t, you can always do a Google search for further information. 

Health experts sometimes do link to pages where you can purchase products, but they should never make claims about results that sound too good to be true. Help your teen further develop critical thinking skills by asking questions about statements and promises that seem suspicious or overly simplistic. 

Most importantly, having frequent honest and open discussions about mental and physical health should be a family priority during the teen years.  Kids who lack an accepting support system or are afraid to talk to their parents or doctors are the most susceptible to misinformation and questionable advice on any social media platform. 

TikTok Safety Center has links to legitimate resources for information about Covid- 19, wellness, a parents safety center, a youth portal and many more tabs to help families safely use the platform.

More to Read:

New Study Says Social Media Use Does Not Raise Risk of Depression

About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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