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Why medical professionals are having to step in to keep TikTok users safe

(Image credit: Image Credit: Lightpoet / Shutterstock)

The rise of social media platform TikTok has been nothing short of meteoric. Launched in 2017, the network only went live worldwide in mid-2018. Two years and over two billion downloads later, TikTok has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. But how much care should we be taking when it comes to digesting the content that we see on the app?

The arrival of TikTok has already seen more than its fair share of controversy over user information is stored and whether it's entirely private - leading to bans being issued across the world. However, another pertinent trend emerging appears to have raised fears over the physical wellbeing of users.

The video-sharing platform has brought various users together on a global scale. As Covid-19 caused widespread devastation, users found solace by recording and sharing various prank videos, choreographed dances and funny moments across their homes to connect to people despite being unable to leave the house.

However, alongside the humorous, harmless content, more harmful trends were emerging on the app among its userbase of all ages.

TikTok's community guidelines clearly state that content promoting physical harm and videos risks the safety of others is strictly prohibited. But such rules have proven difficult to regulate for the network that boasts over 800 million active users.

As a result, there have been reports of deaths and users ending up in hospital copying the actions of fellow-users in extreme viral challenges.

Threats posed by viral content

Viral challenges are nothing new in the world of social media. Ice bucket challenges and mannequin challenges have populated channels like Facebook and Twitter for years. Alongside these relatively harmless viral videos that encourage others to test themselves came more problematic challenges like NekNomination - where in 2014 users were tasked with quickly drinking the most surprising mixtures of drinks, with some mixing car polish and live goldfish into their brew.

As a platform that thrives on viral videos, TikTok has seen plenty of challenges launch in its short lifespan. Many of which challenge users to mimic complicated dances or carry out pranks on housemates, but some have led to widespread condemnation.

Recently, a 15-year old girl from Oklahoma reportedly died after attempting the 'Benadryl Challenge', a TikTok-based task where users overdose on diphenhydramine typically used to treat allergies.

Doctor David Juurlink, MD moved fast to condemn the fad, saying: "Benadryl in large doses can cause seizures and cardiac arrests. If young people are being encouraged to take it in large doses on TikTok, this is very dangerous."

Elsewhere, another teen wound up in hospital after attempting the 'Skull Breaker Challenge' on TikTok, a viral challenge where an individual would have their legs kicked out from under them by others on camera. The name comes from the impact the victim makes on the ground as they fall.

The damaging viral videos have drawn widespread condemnation from medical professionals and parents alike.

Promoting anorexia

One of the biggest issues within TikTok is the frequency in which users are found to promote eating disorders to impressionable viewers.

TikTok is predominantly used by young people. Due to this, there's a large number of videos that focus on more drastic beauty tips.

Pro-anorexia content is rife on TikTok, according to users. Videos produced advocating sleeping all day to avoid eating and fasting for days-on-end in a bid to glorify being thin are repeatedly finding their way onto the feeds of users, with TikTok acting too slow to remove them.

Alongside pro-anorexia content there can be pro-bulimia content found on the social network. Various trends on the app to help users to demonstrate how slender they are involve proving how small your waist is by comparing it to household items, and videos that demonstrate a user's daily intake of food and how low the calorie count is.

Speaking to the BBC, James Downs, a mental health campaigner said: "In my experience, having struggled with body image and eating problems for a long time, I try not to follow the accounts which I know will trigger me. Knowing your triggers is really important."

Downs also stated how vital it was for users to report dangerous content to help TikTok identify potential issues faster: "It's also important to have confidence to report content that you think is unsafe or could be harmful to someone, as well as talking to other people about what's worrying you."

The return of backstreet dentistry

On a beauty conscious app like TikTok, quick fixes to 'improve' the appearance of viewers have become popular on the app. Worryingly, some of the tips offered by users can be extremely hazardous.

One significant example can be found in the case of a user recording themselves rubbing bleach directly on to their teeth with a cotton wool bud to make them appear whiter. The video itself gathered over 15 million views and sales in hydrogen peroxide have reportedly spiked in the wake of the video being published.

Dr Kunal Patel of Love teeth Dental Practice condemned the video, explaining that: "Applying hydrogen peroxide, or bleach as it's more commonly known, is likely to lead to painful tooth sensitivity at best."

"In the worst case scenario, a high concentration could bring about severe burns on the inside of the mouth, lips and gums. It could even result in the need for gum grafts and tooth loss, which can be tricky to fix. Even more worrying is the fact that bleach can be deadly if consumed."

The publication of the video on TikTok highlights a growing problem where young adults are being encouraged to ignore medically sound approaches to cosmetic dentistry in favor of ignoring advice and embracing harmful substances.

The medical professionals fighting back

Despite there being a clearly worrying trend of young people finding them exposed to dangerous viral videos on TikTok in a way that the app's terms of use and guidelines are unable to successfully regulate, there's a new trend emerging of healthcare professionals fighting back with their own viral videos.

#DoctorsOfTikTok and #TikTokDocs are two hashtags that have over 24 million video views attached to them, where doctors are using the social platform to help them reach young people with professional medical advice.

Typically blending medical advice with music and dancing, various professionals are looking to tackle online disinformation in a more engaging way for TikTok's users.

One of the pioneers behind the approach, Dr Leslie said: "I focus my content on topics I cover daily in the clinic, from coronavirus to contraception and I use my videos to combat medical disinformation with facts from medical literature. I use the app as a tool for health advocacy, addressing important topics like health equity, transgender healthcare, and the impact of global warming on health."

TikTok is an app that celebrates the brightest in user-created content. While there are plenty of silly memes to sift through and entertaining dance crazes to mimic, the spread of harmful and bogus healthcare advice and hazardous challenges can be a significant concern to parents and impressionable users alike.

However, with more wholesome viral content like #DoctorsOfTikTok causing a splash, an improvement in regulations and harmful content filters may be all it takes for TikTok to continue to be a bright place for everybody to connect with each other in a healthy way.

Dmytro Spilka, CEO, Solvid

Dmytro is a tech, blockchain and crypto writer based in London. Founder and CEO at Solvid. Founder of Pridicto. Featured in TechRadar, Bitcoin.com, ReadWrite, TNW, and Entrepreneur.com.