STUDY: TikTok Promotes Toxic Diet Culture Among Teens, Young Adults

Troubling new research reveals today’s adolescents and young adults are being “fed” a steady stream of content on the social media platform TikTok. Researchers warn many popular videos on the app arguably suggest that weight is the most important measure of a person’s health.

Study authors from the University of Vermont found that the most viewed content on TikTok related to either food, nutrition, or weight largely perpetuates a toxic diet culture among young users. Even worse, there’s a glaring lack of voices from anyone remotely qualified to comment on nutrition and weight in relation to health. Researchers say the most popular videos glorify losing weight and position food as a means to achieve health and thinness.

This study was the first ever to examine nutrition and body-image related content at scale on TikTok specifically. The research team conducted a comprehensive analysis of the top 100 videos from 10 popular nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags on TikTok, which they then coded for key themes. Keep in mind that each of those hashtags boasted over a billion views when this project began in 2020. Since then, the hashtags have continued to grow exponentially as TikTok’s user base has expanded.

“We were continuously surprised by how prevalent the topic of weight was on TikTok. The fact that billions of people were viewing content about weight on the internet says a lot about the role diet culture plays in our society,” adds study co-author Marisa Minadeo, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis at UVM.

It’s worth noting that the majority of TikTok creators included in this study were white, female adolescents and young adults. Study authors say very few creators were expert voices, defined by the team as an individual with credentials including registered dietitian, doctor, or certified trainer.

“We have to help young people develop critical thinking skills and their own body image outside of social media,” Prof. Pope concludes. “But what we really need is a radical rethinking of how we relate to our bodies, to food and to health. This is truly about changing the systems around us so that people can live productive, happy and healthy lives.”

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