Beyond the viral dance crazes: How healthy is our TikTok habit?

By Lucy Toseland-Bolton, Senior Editor

Even if you haven’t practised and recorded your own lip sync, uploaded a ‘storytime’ or rehearsed a dance, the chances are TikTok’s influence is trickling into your life whether you want it to or not.

It’s changing culture, launching new comedy and music stars, and inspiring social activism. And could it have the same far-reaching impact on health and wellness?

The lowdown on TikTok

The result of a merger of three apps (Musical.ly, ByteDance and Douyin), TikTok has rocked the world of social media since it first launched in 2018.

It now has over 1 billion active users and is growing daily. It may be most popular with Gen Z, but it has growing appeal among older groups too. And studies show users spend an average of nearly an hour a day on it.

From TikTok docs sharing quick health facts, to timelapse meal prep to make-up transformations using lens cover transition, there’s definitely a place for fun, creative or even informative health and wellbeing content.

And with such a strong Gen Z audience, TikTok has the potential to raise awareness about certain health topics that most other channels can’t touch. Want to encourage younger women to book in for a cervical screening? Perhaps hearing from a creator about their experience could be a real and effective way to engage the audience. Or what if you’re trying to change dietary behaviours and reduce junk food consumption? Watching videos by health(ier) food creators would probably resonate more than a middle-aged male doctor telling your audience what they should eat, in a finger-wagging way.

Communities are key on TikTok

Whether you’re simply trying to build an audience or looking to sell products and build your brand, TikTok has abundant opportunities.

It’s a fun and useful user experience, partly because it builds communities across the globe. It’s deliciously inviting when you can dip your toe into a community you may never be part of IRL (Google it). It’s a supportive space where you can share experiences and emotions. It’s incredibly reassuring, somewhere you can hear from people who feel the same as you do. It’s inspiring, and the catalyst to try something new. And it’s also a revenue stream for content creators like Elyse Myers or The P00lguy.

And for brands, it offers an enormous opportunity to be tapped into, largely for free. It’s a place to broaden your brand to your existing audience, as well as drawing in new groups you weren’t even targeting when you posted that first video. As well as their own content creation, colabs (collaborations) with creators, endorsements by influencers and paid-for content all reap huge engagement. The TikTok audience is well-versed on #AD content.

There are countless clever ways to use TikTok to raise your profile. The brands doing it well are the ones that acknowledge their competitors and other brands – and even dare to invite them to join in.

In 2021, budget airline Ryanair posted a plane with a face singing a song with the text ‘Can I get every brand who has TikTok to comment on this for no reason…’. The wealth of comments from a wide range of other brands – not just from holiday companies ­– tipped TikTok’s algorithms in Ryanair’s favour, raising brand awareness.

Negative health impacts

There’s understandable concern about the impact of heavy social media use on our mental wellbeing – particularly on young people, given 69% of 12-15 year olds now have social media accounts. Most social media channels are restricted to 13+ years but the charity Young Minds says that most children sign up to at least one when they’re much younger.

According to leaked info, Meta (formerly known as Facebook Inc) is fully aware of the detrimental impact of its app Instagram on young women: a third of teen girls say it has a negative impact on their body image. The Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust’s research into Young People’s Mental and Emotional Health found “a significant relationship between heavy social media use at age 14 and worse self-esteem and higher psychological distress at age 17”.

This is all before we even mention the additional minefields of cyberbullying, grooming and issues around sleep.

Like all channels, TikTok is not immune to criticism. Trolls thrive, dishing out the harshest of critical comments. For adults these are hard to take, but if you’re young, they are damaging. It might break down barriers and build bridges, but there’s a tsunami of TikTok content featuring glossy images of ‘perfect’ people living their ‘perfect’ lives. These can trigger all sorts of feelings of inadequacy and can even lead to people following potentially harmful trends –the dry scooping fad, for example.

But TikTok is fun, right?

TikTok is fun and highly addictive. As soon as you like, view or comment, TikTok knows, and you’re immediately served up more content.

Its algorithms are strong.

However, linger a touch too long and suddenly you’re spun into a world you may not want to view – or shouldn’t view. A rescue dog video can be followed by a bruised woman sharing her domestic violence story, followed by an addict explaining how they got clean… when all you wanted to see was a make-up transformation.

Creating healthy habits

How can we make sure TikTok stays on the right side of healthy, particularly for younger users? There are ways to restrict content for a younger audience – but these things are often hard to find, and many don’t know they exist. And although there are laws around offensive messaging using digital devices as part of the Malicious Communications Act, the current view is it’s not strong enough around social media.

There’s no doubt about it – social media is now part of our lives, and whether that’s good, bad or ugly, it’s a tool we need to use, whatever our brand and our goals. Whether it’s selling products and promoting services or sharing messages and busting myths, TikTok and its fellow platforms have a great part to play if we use them responsibly.

Lucy is Senior Editor at Thrive and Co-Host of the Parent Pod podcast at BabyCentre UK. She is an experienced writer and editor with a demonstrated history of working in the media and communications industry.

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