TikTok fails to act: views of content using hashtags relating to eating disorders continues to rise
New analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate has discovered that TikTok has removed just 7 of the 56 eating disorder hashtags highlighted by its research.
In December the Center’s “Deadly by Design” report exposed ‘coded’ hashtags where TikTok users could access a range of potentially harmful ‘thinspo’ and ‘pro-ana’ content which had been viewed 13.2 billion times worldwide.
CCDH re-evaluated the hashtags in January 2023 and found that since November 2022 there have been an additional 1.6 billion views of the eating disorder content.
Using TikTok’s own analytics tools available as part of its Creative Center, CCDH researchers also discovered that 91% of views for 21 of the coded hashtags came from those below the age of 24.
TikTok is also failing to put adequate protective measures in place for users attempting to access harmful content. We discovered that in the US 66% of the eating disorder hashtags carry a health warning and advice, but in the UK this number drops to a paltry 5%.
The week of February 27 to March 5, 2023 marks National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the United States and Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the U.K.
The White House marked this week with a “A Proclamation on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 2023”. In the proclamation President Biden noted that “addressing the harms of bullying and social media platforms that fuel eating disorders, depression, and self-harm” was a focus of the Administration’s Unity Agenda.
In light of CCDH’s previous research and recent evidence that TikTok has failed to act on these findings, a coalition of leading charities and advocacy groups from the US and UK, including the NSPCC, and The American Psychological Association have written to Eric Han, Head of Safety TikTok to demand action. The letter notes that TikTok were presented with clear evidence of harms back in December 2022, but have chosen to deny the problem, deflect responsibility, and delay taking any meaningful action.
The letter calls on TikTok to:
- Strengthen its content moderation policies to better address harmful eating disorder and suicide content.
- Work with mental health experts and advocacy organizations to develop a comprehensive approach to identifying and removing harmful content.
- Provide resources and support to users who may be struggling with eating disorders or thoughts of suicide.
- Increase transparency and accountability by regularly reporting on the steps you are taking to address these issues and the impact of those efforts.
CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Imran Ahmed said:
“TikTok’s business model is to broadcast content produced by creators to viewers, using algorithms that individually optimize the addictiveness of the content, all so that they can ultimately serve those viewers ads. TikTok’s algorithm is the social media equivalent of crack cocaine: it’s refined, highly addictive and leaves a trail of damage in its wake that its producers do not appear to care about. And it clearly works, given two thirds of American teens use TikTok on average for 90 minutes a day.
“Our report, Deadly by Design, showed that hashtags are used to bind together content relating to eating disorders, much of which was dangerous to young people, and that had garnered over 13 billion views. Despite an outcry from parents, politicians and the general public, 3 months later this content continues to grow and spread unchecked on TikTok, with a further 1.5 billion views of eating disorder content on just 49 of the hashtags we analyzed.
“Every view represents a potential victim – someone whose mental health might be harmed by negative body image content, someone who might start restricting their diet to dangerously low levels, or find content normalizing and encouraging self-harm.
“The stakes are too high for TikTok to continue to do nothing, or for our politicians to sit back and fail to act. We need platforms and politicians to have parents’ backs, but right now they’re putting profits before people.”
- White House – A Proclamation on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/02/24/a-proclamation-on-national-eating-disorders-awareness-week-2023/
- A copy of the letter to Eric Han, TikTok’s Head of Safety can be found here: https://counterhate.com/blog/coalition-of-charities-and-advocacy-groups-demand-action-from-tiktok-on-the-mental-health-and-well-being-of-children
- Eating disorder hashtags uncovered in the Deadly by Design report have grown to 14.8 billion views, as of January 2023.
- This is an increase of 1.6 billion views since November 2022.
- On average, 91% of the audience of each hashtag are aged 24 and younger. These figures were available for just 21 hashtags in the set with 303 million views in total.
- TikTok has removed seven of the hashtags identified in the report, leaving 49 active.
- TikTok is failing to place protective measures equally between countries, 66% of hashtags analyzed now carry warnings in the US, but in the UK the number falls to 5%.