In the world of social media and unmoderated forums, hurtful culture surrounding weight loss, body size, and food culture can run rampant. In 2021, fitness trainer Lucy Bergin went viral on the popular app TikTok for losing 35lbs in six months, where her videos racked up over 12 million views. Since then, TikTok has experienced an explosion in weight-normative videos and diet culture.
Does TikTok Promote Unhealthy Relationships with Food?
A recent study conducted by the University of Vermont shows that TikTok content appears to be promoting an unhealthy diet and food-restrictive culture, especially in teens. Published in PLOS One, an open-access, free site to share scientific research, the study paints a negative picture of TikTok and body image.
Researchers found themes on the popular social media platform such as glorifying weight loss and focusing on food as a way to achieve both “thinness” and health. It also showed nutritional information being posted by influencers and everyday people instead of experts.
They focused on the use of ten hashtags including #cheatmeal, #thinspiration, and #fitspiration, linking them to diet culture in 1,000 videos. University of Vermont researchers say the majority of these posts were created by “white, female adolescents and young adults,” suggesting that weight loss is glorified among young women and their contemporaries.
Dr. Hill explains that the reality of these apps is that they use algorithms to push young people toward contact that may be misleading and could even be harmful. “In mere seconds users can view multiple depictions of unattainable bodies and lifestyles—and think it’s realistic to achieve them, without knowing the undue harm this process is having on them,” she says.
Researchers from the University of Vermont also pinpoint the algorithm as the main driver of diet culture content. The TikTok algorithm shows users similar content every time they visit, literally tailoring the content for them.
“The increase in these videos that promote unhealthy methods to control weight is contributing to an increase in eating disorders in adolescents,” adds Phylice Kessler, LMHC with Mindpath Health. “Due to the algorithms of the site, if someone watches one video on an eating disorder, they will then be given more videos with similar content.”
Weight is Not the Only Measure of Health
The study conducted by UVM also indicates a striking problem with so-called “fitness” videos on TikTok: they focus on weight. According to the study, nearly 44% of the videos they looked at had content about weight loss. Even further, more than 20% of the videos specifically showed the person’s weight transformation.”
The study shows the danger of algorithms in promoting hashtags over health. The UVM study found the weight loss hashtag was close to 10 billion views when they first looked at it. This showed researchers just how many people were interested in losing weight and engaging with that hashtag. Of the videos that promoted body positivity, they found the creators were positive because they lost weight.
“Weight should never be used as a measure of health. Health should be measured by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising,” emphasizes Dr. Kessler.
Both Dr. Hill and Dr. Kessler agree that health should be measured more by a person’s lifestyle than their weight.
Social Media Usage and Disordered Eating
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes eating disorders as, “serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.”
Dr. Hill says adolescence is a critical time for young adults to have adequate nutrition. But it’s also the time when eating disorders tend to peak. “[Eating disorders cause] changes in the brain, including loss of brain matter from malnutrition,” she explains. “[There are also] other physical side effects like decreased bone density and slowing of the heart.”
Many of TikTok’s viral weight loss videos are marketed through eating “properly.” Unsurprisingly to many, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of social media experienced an uptick. A recent study in the journal Eating Disorders, suggests there was also a rise in so-called “fatphobic” messaging around diet and exercise.
The study from UVM adds to this finding, showing 14% of the videos were about specific foods or dieting. Researchers say the food content they found was more about pursuing health and wellness and less about pleasure or social and cultural influences.
Influencers who go viral for losing weight in a public forum can make a weight loss and disordered eating journey look easy for teens. The appeal of losing weight quickly, sped up by video editing software and perfected by filters, can cause teens to jump on this dangerous bandwagon concerning body image.
Dr. Kessler agrees saying many times influencers post videos that use filters or have been altered. This can create negative body images in those who see the videos.
How Can a Parent Fight Social Media Perceptions?
On social media, a person can share a 30-second video showing them losing six months of weight. Filters are used to make bodies look perfectly airbrushed and thin. What can parents do to help their teens navigate this challenging environment?
Dr. Kessler confirms that it’s about keeping an open dialogue with your teens about the content they consume online. “Encourage positive self-esteem that has nothing to do with body image,” she says. “[They] can model healthy eating and participate in exercise together, like going for a walk, riding bikes, or playing a sport.”
Linking health to anything other than weight loss, and modeling proper eating habits to kids can be especially helpful. Parents and teens can also work together to develop social media contracts, to reduce app usage. This can be something as simple as a document signed by both parent and kid outlining the privilege of being allowed to be on social media, as well as the expectations.
Importantly, Dr. Hill says parents should remain vigilant for signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Dr. Kessler suggests the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for parents to read more about risk factors.
In addition, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) is a non-profit that offers free support to anyone struggling with an eating disorder.
What This Means for You
Teens, especially girls and those that are assigned female at birth, are susceptible to the algorithmic promotion of diet culture hashtags on TikTok posts and on other social media. This can create unrealistic expectations and be harmful, leading to disordered eating.