According to a study conducted by Washington State University, TikTok's most popular health-related videos revolve around three main topics: sexual health, diet, and exercise. However, the study found a lack of other engaging health-related content on the platform.
Interestingly, the majority of TikTok's young audience seems to be drawn to health-related videos featuring popular influencers who act as role models. These influencers often share aspects of their own diets or exercise routines, which appeals to the audience more than expert medical advice. The findings were published in the Journal of Health Communication.
Nicole O’Donnell, an assistant professor of communications at WSU and the lead author of the study
Compared to well-established social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, TikTok is relatively new, and its user patterns are still being explored by scientists. To bridge this knowledge gap, the research team, which included O’Donnell and communications Ph.D. students Sultana Ismet Jerin and Di Mu, conducted an analysis of 400 health-related videos from TikTok's #EduTok campaign.
The study revealed that the majority of videos on TikTok focused on mental health, diet, exercise, or sexual health, catering to the platform's younger audience's interests. However, despite their prevalence, mental health videos received comparatively lower levels of audience engagement. Additionally, crucial topics highly relevant to teenagers, such as substance abuse prevention, bullying, and sexual violence prevention, were notably missing from the content.
As expected, videos that used 'role model' appeals, featuring famous actresses or sports stars advocating for a healthier lifestyle, garnered the highest levels of engagement. Similarly, videos aiming to shock or discourage certain behaviors also gained significant viewership. Unfortunately, both types of videos often lacked essential factual information and failed to promote achievable changes in behavior.
According to Jerin, nearly half of the videos analyzed incorporated role model appeals, indicating that personal stories resonate strongly with audiences. The emotional appeal of the content also played a significant role in driving audience engagement. Interestingly, mental health videos, despite being the most frequently covered health topic in EduTok videos, appeared to be the least engaging. The researchers are conducting a separate study to delve deeper into the emotional appeals used in mental health messaging to understand their impact on engagement.
Another concerning finding was the prevalence of videos encouraging self-diagnosis of mental health problems. O'Donnell highlighted the potential seriousness of this trend, as it may lead individuals, especially young people, to diagnose their own health issues solely based on brief social media clips.
O'Donnell expressed concern about the significant engagement levels observed in videos where individuals self-diagnosed their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. This trend raises potential problems, and the researchers advocate for future public messaging to address the issue. They also plan to conduct further investigations into the broader topic of mental health, including analyzing the emotional appeals utilized by creators.
Looking ahead, the researchers hope that healthcare providers, state, and federal agencies can leverage their findings to better connect with young people on various health-related subjects. O'Donnell noted that authentic stories about people's lives garnered much more engagement than videos featuring professionals in white coats sharing their opinions. As a recommendation, the researchers propose that health professionals should explore ways to share authentic stories while still providing credible and reliable information to the audience. (RN/NW)