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TikTok suggests harmful videos to vulnerable users

Image of TikTok app on a smartphone
Solen Feyissa | Unsplash

News round-up by Conor D'Andrade

Research has revealed worrying findings that the TikTok algorithm promotes disordered eating and self-harm to teenagers within minutes of them showing interest in similar content.

The study was conducted by The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) by registering accounts in the UK, US, Australia and Canada as 13-year-olds, which is the minimum age for joining the service.

'Standard' and 'vulnerable' accounts were created, with the vulnerable group having words like 'lose weight' contained within their username, reflecting the finding from other research that people seeking content relating to disordered eating often use usernames with similar language.

Both accounts liked and briefly paused on videos about mental health, eating disorders and body image.

This was carried out over a 30-minute period immediately after activating these accounts, with the aim being to see how quickly the TikTok algorithm would start to promote more of this content.

For the ‘standard’ accounts, content about suicide was shown within three minutes of account activation and content on disordered eating was promoted within eight.

For the ‘vulnerable’ accounts, videos promoting disordered eating were shown 3x more often, and suicide and self-harm were shown 12x more often when compared with the ‘standard’ accounts.

Additionally, the content shown to these vulnerable accounts was considerably more extreme, with young people talking about plans to kill themselves and methods of self-harm.

On average, content relating to disordered eating and self-harm was shown to accounts every 206 seconds and content relating more widely to body image and mental health was shown every 27 seconds.

According to the report, content focusing on body image was the most harmful.

The app promoted videos advertising weight loss drinks and surgery, with one animation that had received 100,000 likes being shown to a ‘standard’ account saying “I’ve been starving myself for you.”

CCDH’s Chief Executive, Imran Ahmed said: “The results are every parent’s nightmare.

“Young people’s feeds are bombarded with harmful, harrowing content that can have a significant cumulative impact on their understanding of the world around them, and their physical and mental health.”

Number of men seeking mental health support remains low

A newly published survey has found that two-thirds of men aged 25 and under have experienced poor mental health, but less than half have ever looked for professional help for their mental health.

The survey was carried out by Benenden Health on 2,000 men from the UK aged 16-24, with the results finding that 69% had experienced poor mental health at least once in their life.

Over half of these said they managed their own well-being rather than seeking professional support.

Worryingly, only 10% reported having ‘excellent’ mental health, compared with 25% who reported having poor or very poor mental health.

Despite the fact most young men have experienced poor mental health, only a third are able to identify things they find triggering and ways to improve their mental health.

Matron at Benenden Health, Cheryl Lythgoe said: “It is no secret that mental health challenges affect a significant number of us and is especially the case for a huge number of men in the UK.

“It is easy to sweep poor mental wellbeing under the carpet, but by identifying what the leading triggers of our poor mental health are – and knowing those of our family and friends – we can check in more regularly and appropriately, whilst also making it clear that mental health challenges are nothing unusual and needn’t be tackled alone.”

Trade body announced for developers of mental health apps

Plans have been put in motion to start a new trade body for developers of mental health and well-being apps, following the announcement from NICE and MHRA of a £1.8 million project to review the regulation of these apps.

Director of Medtech Policy at Whitehouse Communications, Chris WHitehouse said: “It’s very early days, but already we’re in touch with MHRA and NICE, and the DHSC’s MedTech Directorate, to discuss how best we can facilitate the engagement of responsible app providers in this important regulatory review, as we have done for other groups of specialist product suppliers in the past.

“We hope to position the new network as a constructive forum for discussion between regulators and the sector.”

Chief Executive of Corperformance and the meeting chairman, Dr Adam Carey said: “Digital innovation in healthcare can bring great benefits at minimal cost, and make a real difference to the quality of life of millions of people. It’s vital we get regulation right: protecting patients, whilst encouraging the development and delivery of exciting, innovative and effective new apps through a proportionate approach.”

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