TikTok brings resurgence of eating disorder culture

TikTok, the most popular social media platform of the year, promotes eating disorder culture – and thanks to its addictive nature, it’s hard to stop watching.

The eating disorder culture of 2010’s Tumblr has now moved to TikTok, targeting younger members of Generation Z. However, due to the nature of TikTok’s For You Page algorithm, users don’t even have to search for pro-eating disorder content to see it on their page. Simply viewing a video makes it likely that others like it will show up on the user’s For You Page. Additionally, TikTok’s widespread popularity among young teens along with its short video length makes it easy for users to view a shocking number of videos in one sitting.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found the TikTok algorithm shows accounts registered as 13-year-olds tens of thousands of weight loss videos within weeks of joining the platform. My own body image suffered as a result of early 2000s tabloids and later, the eating disorder culture that arose during Tumblr’s peak popularity, but I wasn’t exposed to that type of content for hours each day like today’s younger generation is.

It’s also common to see attractive, and often alarmingly thin, women lip syncing and dancing after just a few minutes of scrolling. Repeatedly seeing this type of content normalizes an unhealthy body image.

Young teens often try to replicate this content, which is often characterized by sexual undertones. A TikTok spokesperson said they don’t differentiate between adults and minors when recommending videos, and the Wall Street Journal investigation found accounts registered as 13 to 15-year-olds being served videos featuring rape, drugs and sexual fantasies. This conditions children to sexualize themselves and publicly post such content without realizing the consequences. Some argue that what they’re doing is not sexual, but it’s imperative to recognize that there are people on the internet who will see it that way. Two things can be true at once. This is also linked to the development of eating disorders, likely because it causes teens to place too much emphasis on how they look.

The children being exposed to and affected by this content aren’t at fault. Rather, social media companies exploiting their vulnerabilities and placing corporate interest above human interest must be held accountable. However, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. We must instead think critically about the media we consume and self-monitor to recognize if it’s harming us. For example, signs of an eating disorder include (but are not limited to) restricting the types or amount of food one eats, spending a lot of time thinking about what to eat, compulsively checking one’s body in the mirror and feeling irritable or cold often.

This may seem hypocritical, as we at The Alestle are starting our own TikTok account. Our decision to do so comes from the fact that many people use TikTok to get news rather than reading an article. People often say this is because their attention spans have become so short that they would rather listen to a summary of an article. While we are willing to adapt to the times, you will not get the same information in a three-minute summary as in an article with multiple sources and quotes.

As with all social media platforms, TikTok has the capability to affect people in positive and negative ways. But as we continue to spend hours each day consuming media, we have the responsibility to monitor the effects of said media and give criticism where it’s due. I encourage those struggling with self-esteem to block or report triggering content and limit their screen time.

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