With millions of users between 13 and 24 years of age, TikTok offers a chance to educate those who could easily spread COVID-19 to older adults.
As social media emerges as a major tool for health care education, especially during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, experts are beginning to examine whether the platform TikTok could enable education for teens and young adults.
Since its global release in 2018, TikTok has gained 800 million users worldwide, mostly teenagers and young people who share short videos less than a minute long. The app has 37 billion monthly views in the United States alone, offering a major opportunity for health care professionals to share needed information.1
In a study conducted by experts at William Paterson University and Columbia University, researchers used a #Coronavirus hashtag to examine 117 TikTok videos, 17 of which were created by the World Health Organization (WHO). In total, the videos received more than a billion views.1
Upon further analysis, the investigators found that fewer than 10% of the videos mentioned how the virus is transmitted, what the symptoms are, and how it can be prevented.1 None of the videos, including those created by the WHO, mentioned death and death rates, incubation periods, wearing a face mask, or travel restrictions.1
Common themes included anxiety and quarantine, which the authors said may be because teenagers are facing many social and emotional challenges as a result of the pandemic, including school closures and requirements to minimize contact with friends.1
Although none of the videos suggested conspiracy theories about COVID-19, just 18 quoted reputable sources and 5 videos contained misinformation. Just 9 mentioned hand hygiene and 2 discussed staying indoors, whereas 4 videos mentioned avoiding close contact with those who are sick and 3 mentioned staying home when ill. Four videos encouraged viewers to wear masks.1
According to a press release, the study authors believe their findings represent a major missed opportunity for medical professionals to engage youth with vital health information. Users could convey messages about controlling the spread of the virus, the need for strict social distancing measures, and the importance of proper mask wearing. The authors added that these messages are particularly important among the main TikTok audience of teenagers and young adults, who could easily pass the virus to more vulnerable family members.2
According to the study authors, the largest age group of users is those between 18 and 24 years of age (42%), followed by those between 13 and 17 years of age (27%). WHO recommendations for this age group include staying connected via social media, giving apps like TikTok even more opportunities to convey important health information.1
“It’s paramount for public health professionals to tailor messaging in ways that make it most accessible,” said lead researcher Corey Basch, MPH, in a statement. “It’s also essential to note that the credibility of TikTok as a source of information is threatened by those whose intentions are to undermine the health and safety of viewers. Identifying the types of barriers to using social media platforms for the benefit of health and safety is a crucial next step.”2