TikTok is one of the most popular apps of all-time, with the app being downloaded more than 1.5 billion times. Since downloading it six weeks ago I’ve noticed a stark issue with the app: the overwhelming amount of content promoting eating disorders.
Now, whilst all online platforms struggle with monitoring potentially harmful content on their sites, TikTok appears to be completely failing to combat this problem, to the point where such content is promoted. As someone who has previously struggled with an eating disorder, I never seek out content that could trigger me. Yet one day, when I was scrolling through my For You page, a post with hashtags such as ‘#ed #eatingdisorder #anorexia’ came up on my feed. It paralysed me.
Social media definitely had a helping hand in my eating disorder development, amongst other factors, and I knew how to actively find dangerous content on Instagram and just the Internet itself. However, unlike TikTok, Instagram would never actively promote such harmful content.
Once I brought myself back to reality and tried to process everything I was feeling, I pressed the ‘show me less content like this button’ and hoped that would be the end of that. I was wrong. Slowly I’ve seen my TikTok get filled with eating disorder content. Some videos are of people attempting to recover from their eating disorder, some are treating their TikTok as a diary and making videos documenting their thoughts towards food and their body, other videos are made by people trying to help others recover from eating disorders. And, of course, there are some actively promoting eating disorder behaviour. For me, all this content is triggering. Yes, even the ‘helpful’ ones.
However, I often find that those promoting disordered eating are masking their habits in the form of ‘wellness’, unlike the majority of posts on platforms such as Instagram who know they are promoting disordered eating. I stumbled across a video of a woman who, in her words, is ‘fasting’ and only drinking water most days, then having the odd meal here and there, and claiming this is healthy. This is not wellness. This is not ‘fasting’. This is disordered eating.
Whilst anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, according to Anorexia and Bulimia Care, ‘young people between the ages of 14 and 25 are most at risk [of developing an eating disorder]and 41 per cent of TikTok users are between the age of 16 and 24. This harmful content is lurking across the app ready to be viewed by vulnerable young people at any moment, and with diet culture being so prevalent in our society (I was dieting by age 11) these videos could be the tipping point for some people at any moment. Or the trigger to send someone like myself back into a relapse. According to the app’s community guidelines, TikTok bans videos that ‘promote eating habits that are likely to cause health issues’, so how come this content is so easily accessible?
There are so many posts of people promoting unhealthy eating methods, where the comments are flooded with questions such as ‘how do you do it?’, ‘how do you stop your parents from finding out?’, ‘I wish I was as skinny as you’. Anorexia is the leading cause of mental health-related deaths, this content could potentially lead to people dying, and a community guideline is not going to be enough to stop it. I know it will always be hard to police and eradicate triggering content across all social media. Yet the fact that hashtags such as the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article are even permitted, astounds me.
I am considering deleting the app because I know it is a danger to me. If I see enough triggering content, I know that I will stumble back into a relapse. I am lucky to have had enough therapy and support to know what content is dangerous for me, but so many do not. And even when I try to avoid such content, TikTok throws it back in my face.
So many, like myself a few years ago, will aimlessly stumble across a community which motivates dangerous behaviour and cling onto that community, thinking it will make everything better. People suffering from eating disorders are not healthy enough to know what they are doing. That is when those who own the platforms must intervene. So, my message to TikTok is simply this: do better.