The i-value

HPHR Fellow Javaid Sofi

By Javaid Iqbal

Public Health and TikTok

Facebook is for sharing important milestones in your life, like getting married or having a baby, and Twitter is for political ranting. Instagram and Snapchat are for popularity contests. While TikTok has a certain simplicity, a place that lets you be goofy and others join you by performing silly, funny challenges. It also acts as comic relief with people scrolling it for hours. Founded in 2017, it is the fastest growing social media application globally, topping the chart for ‘Most Downloaded’ in the USA in 2018 and is now available in over 150 countries. With 800 million users globally and 70 million in the U.S., TikTok has become a social media behemoth.


Now healthcare professionals are using it to fight misinformation and provide young people with information about public health in a fun and engaging manner. 


To combat misinformation, we must know the type of information accessed and the potential platforms for disseminating information that has widespread reach for the audience. A September survey of more than 21,000 Americans by researchers led by a group from Northeastern University found that adults under 25 had the highest probability of believing a false claim about COVID-19. For instance, 28% of respondents ages 18 to 24 incorrectly thought that the coronavirus passed to humans by eating bats, compared to just 6% of people over 65.


Videos posted on TikTok with the hashtag #WearAMask garnered almost 500 million views, with 27% of the trending videos involving dance. They garnered over 130 million cumulative views, which shows how TikTok was used to promote mask use. Due to the platform’s incredible reach, TikTok has excellent potential in conveying important public health messages to various segments of the population.


An increasing number of government agencies have realized the importance of actively participating on social media for citizen engagement, relationship building, and citizen compliance, significantly when people’s health depends on the compliance.


The most popular health topics people watch on Tiktok are female reproductive care and acne treatment which shows young users are more engaged in TikTok. They want to make better health choices as only 39 state and D.C. mandate sex and/or HIV education. The extent to which contraception is discussed, if at all, also differs widely across the nation. TikTok can be a vital tool in spreading crucial medical information to young people which may not otherwise reach them. Many schools that teach sex-ed egregiously believe teens will remain abstinent, which is mainly ineffective and increases unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).


Teenagers are more likely to trust an online influencer rather than read a randomized controlled study on the same topic. On the app, they come across a registered nurse teaching how to properly wash hands while singing a popular Gen Z song or a doctor dancing and educating people on social distance.


What makes TikTok different is that the app elevates the content that the person is already seeing. One can spend hours on the app without seeing anyone you know because the platform is driven by an algorithmic discovery that punctures the filter bubble. The app is also easier to use than Snapchat or Instagram, appealing to the short attention span and providing customized video feeds to their users. The TikTok for your page will show you the content of viral people and contend of people with just a handful of views that promote equality compared to other social networks. People can repurpose audio footage from other videos and create a unique take on someone else’s idea.


Teenagers are also attracted to TikTok as their parents use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and they want a place where they can post funny content without parental supervision. TikTok is also safe for teenagers, with The New York Times  praising it for its strict adherence to minors’ online safety and stand against online bullying.


But online fame for healthcare professionals comes with risks, as they may become part of the problem they’re trying to fight. Historically, there’s never been any teaching in medical training in communicating on a general level with our communities and our patient. If they are not careful, they may undermine the trust of the audience in the medical professional. There have been incidences when medical professionals have used TikTok to mock their patients. One popular TikToker published a video of herself in medical scrubs captioned “we know when y’all are faking,” which kicked off a movement in which social media users shared times when their medical providers didn’t believe them. Even those with the best intentions and accurate information can find themselves in trouble when they move to a new medium.

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