UBC academics call for global research agenda on TikTok impacts on public health

Questions and answers

TikTok has acquired over a billion monthly users in just five years, but the influential video-sharing app remains one of the least studied social media platforms.

UBC researchers want to change that.

In a comment posted this week in BMJ Global Health, Assistant Professor Dr. Skye Barbic (she she) from the occupational therapy and occupational therapy department joins research associate Marco Zenone (he him) and postdoctoral fellow Nikki Ow (she she) by calling for a global research agenda on TikTok’s impact on public health.

They argue that health researchers need to better understand the implications of TikTok’s immense reach and the opportunities it presents. We spoke with Dr Barbic and Zenone about their motivations.

Dr Skye Barbic

Why do you see an urgent need for researchers to turn their attention to TikTok?

SB: Over a billion people use TikTok an average of 17 hours per month. According to TikTok, 80% of them are under 30 years old. Given TikTok’s influence on discourse on important public health topics, I think it’s critical that we understand what’s happening on the platform, how people are using it, and how we can improve. experiences from a security perspective, especially for young people. It’s very rare that you see something so widely used that has so little research on it.

Have researchers waited too long to investigate the public health implications of old social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram?

Marco Zenone

Marco Zenone

MZ: In my opinion, the research community initially focused too much on the public health opportunities of social media – setting up accounts for health organizations, running awareness campaigns through advertisements and building awareness. online community – in relation to the potential negative implications, such as the spread of disinformation. or disinformation, surveillance capitalism and the representation and promotion of products harmful to health. For example, a recent study found that 98 of the top 100 TikTok videos with the hashtag #alcohol portrayed alcohol positively. This concerns us as public health researchers.

We also know that there is a strong engagement on health related content but we do not know the quality of the health information amplified on the platform. People may be using TikTok to learn about specific mental health issues, but we don’t know if they’re getting specific information or advice. Content creators providing this information might have conflicts of interest: are they selling a product? Do they have proper credentials? This can have implications for how information is received and incorporated into lives or treatment plans.

With other platforms, we’ve always had to catch up and take action only after significant harm has occurred, like COVID-19 misinformation or the rapid spread of JUUL vaping products through Instagram.

Is TikTok doing anything to eliminate bad health information?

MZ: TikTok performs some checks. For example, if you search for “vaccine” or anything related to the COVID-19 pandemic, you will get a link to factual information, which is a good thing. But we need it for cancer treatment misinformation or content promoting unproven medical interventions. TikTok can be used for good, but it can also be used for nefarious purposes. A bad actor who doesn’t have the best intentions can easily affect a lot of people. And that’s not specific to TikTok – it’s an issue with social media and the business model of maximizing content engagement to serve ads.

How can researchers master a platform so young and still evolving?

SB: Research is often slower than technological innovations, so we need to be much faster and more agile in our response. We need to work alongside the end users of these platforms to understand what is going on so that we can respond accurately in public health and more generally in health services. It may force us to be a little more non-traditional in our research methods, to be in new spaces, and to listen and learn. We have so much work to do as a research community to engage users and understand their perspectives.

Language (s) of the interview: English

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