TikTok can subject people sensitive to eating disorders to continuous streams of triggering videos about the subject without them actively looking for the videos, according to a study by RTL Nieuws, De Groene Amsterdammer, and Utrecht University.
A new TikTok user can find themself in a stream of videos about eating disorders within 30 minutes of opening an account without ever looking for them. RTL and De Groene Amsterdammer discovered this by creating new accounts that automatically scrolled the app. TikTok’s algorithm determines your likes by looking at how long you keep watching a video. The news media found three pathways that lead from common interests to eating disorders by setting their accounts to pause on videos about dieting, sports and fitness, and videos featuring thin women like K-pop videos.
Videos about dieting became more intense until they were about extreme weight loss and, eventually, anorexia. Fitness videos had a similar pattern. Videos featuring thin women led to videos of thinner and thinner women. It may take real people with more diverse interests than an automatic account longer to fall down that rabbit hole, but experts are concerned, according to RTL.
“These kinds of videos can be extremely triggering if you have an eating disorder or are not feeling well in your skin,” said Annemarie van Bellegem, a pediatrician at Amsterdam UMC specializing in eating disorders. “You then constantly compare yourself to the people you see in the videos and glorify the most extreme variants.”
“If you are vulnerable and come across these kinds of videos on TikTok, the algorithm can just grab you by the scruff of the neck. It is a danger to young people,” Eric van Furth, a professor of eating disorders at Leiden University, said to the broadcaster. “Whether you develop an eating disorder depends on genetic factors and environmental factors. Genes do not change, but the environment can be more or less harmful.”
TikTok’s moderators can do little about these videos, as most of the videos RTL and De Groene Amsterdammer saw fit within the platform’s moderation policy. For example, videos of thin people telling what they eat in a day and adding that they are recovering in the description. Recovery videos are explicitly allowed in TikTok’s moderation policy. There are also videos of people admitted to a clinic dancing around with a probe in their noses.
“Quite worrying,” professor Van Furth said to RTL. “The underlying message with such a dancing girl is: ‘I’m not going to eat.’ You have no idea how serious it is from the maker. Are they just making a funny video, or are they really recovering? The combination of cheerful music with worrying content gives a contradictory message, that is not a good cocktail.”