Utrecht Data School: TikTok is harmful for people prone to eating disorder

Een hand houdt een telefoon vast met het TikTok-logo. Foto: Solen Feyissa, via Unsplash

People with an interest in fitness and dieting are exposed to harmful videos on the app TikTok in no time, Utrecht Data School, De Groene Amsterdammer, and RTL Nieuws find. Together, they conducted research into ‘eating disorder videos’, videos in which eating disorders are (indirectly) promoted, on the social media platform.

Eating disorder trap

In her study, Utrecht Data School had automated accounts watch videos on TikTok. The accounts were assigned three interests that bordered on eating disorders: dieting, fitness and slim women. As the accounts watched videos on these topics for slightly longer, TikTok’s algorithms picked up on the interests.

At first glance, the individual videos did not seem directly harmful. However, the researchers saw that in no time at all, their accounts were only shown videos on these topics and that the videos became increasingly radical. Indeed, what followed was an overwhelming constant stream of extreme diets, eating disorder videos and thin bodies.

What followed was an overwhelming constant stream of eating disorder videos.

“What happens is that you start with a few videos about dieting,” researcher Joris Veerbeek explains in RTL Nieuws (8 February). “Then you are presented with more and more. The diets become more and more extreme until you are shown more and more eating disorder videos. And this whole process, this takes about half an hour.”

TikTok’s moderation policy

Formally, eating disorder videos are banned on TikTok, but videos about recovering from an eating disorder are allowed. Consequently, the descriptions accompanying harmful videos often state that the videos are about ‘recovery’, which is by no means always correct.

Moderators have a hard time determining whether a video is harmful. Not only do they get less than 15 seconds to rate a video, they also only get to see individual videos – which thus may not necessarily appear dangerous at first glance. TikTok has stated that they are working on a solution.

‘TikTok laat schadelijke video's zien aan mensen met eetstoornis’, RTL Nieuws (8 February)
‘App schadelijk voor kind met stoornis’, RTL Nieuws (8 February, from 16:15)
‘TikTok als fuik van de eetstoornis: de bubbel van dun, dunner, dunst’, De Groene Amsterdammer (8 February, pay wall)
‘Verantwoording bij het onderzoek naar eetstoornisvideo’s op TikTok’, De Groene Amsterdammer (8 February)
‘Extreme video’s over eetstoornissen zijn op TikTok verboden’, Humberto (10 February)