Public Health Matters | TikTok Health Trends & Misinformation

Users are exposed to health information or promotion, either directly or indirectly just by accessing the app.

Nabeela-Cassim

Image by cottonbro studio on pexels.com

In 2024, TikTok remains a popular social media platform worldwide with 60% of users comprising Gen Z users (anyone born between 1996 and the early-mid 2000s). What makes TikTok unique is its personally-curated algorithm – the “For You Page” (FYP) tends to favour trending topics with content specific to that which the user interacts with frequently (through commenting or liking videos).

What started as an entertainment platform, has now become a platform for access to information, with TikTok hosting videos by anyone – from healthcare professionals, celebrities, authors, mental health practitioners and so on. Users are exposed to health information or promotion, either directly or indirectly just by accessing the app.

 

Regular TikTok users might  have been exposed to the importance of vitamin deficiencies in managing mental health conditions, the importance of whole food diets in regulating blood sugar levels, the benefits of walking and the need for annual blood tests to reveal the cause of unexplained symptoms dampening daily function. Although the “health trends” prevalent on TikTok is a refreshing alternative to the content on other social media platforms, misinformation may also be easily spread.

An example that was recently seen was the promotion of the use of Ashwangandha to help alleviate symptoms of stress of everyday life, with users sharing their experiences, encouraging others to take this “over the counter supplement”. Recently Ashwaghandha has been trending again but this time with users discouraging its use, attributing “emotional numbing” as a side effect of the herb.

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, botanically known as Withania somnifera Dunal, with prominent use in Ayurvedic medicine. The herb acts on various systems of the human body: the neurological, immune system, energy-production, endocrinal reproductive systems (1). In a randomized, double-blinded, placebo controlled study of the efficacy and safety of Ashwagandha, 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress were participants in the trail for 60 days (1). The study found that high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract resulted in reduction of serum cortisol levels, which in turn would help alleviate stressful conditions (1). The side effects reported in the study among the control group were rhinitis, constipation, cough and cold, drowsiness and decreased appetite (1).

 

 

In South Africa, Ashwagandha can be readily found in wellness stores and pharmacies. This herb is non-prescription but is also not regulated by SAHPRA (South African Health Products Regulatory Authority), which is the case with most supplements or herbs in the market. This means that the efficacy, strength and dosage bought hasn’t been confirmed to contain the contents advertised on the packaging of these products.

Although this is just one example of contradictory health information being spread on TikTok, the healthcare sector can no longer ignore TikTok’s impact on its user’s health-seeking behaviour.  A study of public health departments’ micro-video accounts on the TikTok platform in mainland China has suggested that most regions struggle to take advantage of the platform’s growing popularity (2). TikTok should be seen as a health dissemination platform and departments of health and healthcare governing authorities should leverage this tool for the promotion of factual information enabling it to become a public health intervention.

 


 

[1] Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine [Internet]. 2012 Jul 1;34(3):255–62. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.4103/0253-7176.106022
[2] Zhu C, Xu X, Zhang W, Chen J, Evans R. How Health Communication via TikTok Makes a Difference: A Content Analysis of TikTok Accounts Run by Chinese Provincial Health Committees. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2019 Dec 27 [cited 2022 Dec 11];17(1):192. Available from: www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph
0

0 Comments

Get an email whenever we publish a new thought piece

Topic:

By signing up you consent to our terms and conditions

More from Nabeela Cassim

Email

Subscribe