“Pro-ana” groups have been found on every form of social media. These are people who get together and promote the worsening of eating disorders such as anorexia. TikTok is the latest platform to discover this problem.
Websites such as Tumblr, Instagram and Reddit have faced pro-ana problems, and have been removing content and banning certain words for years, in an attempt to keep harmful information away from its users. However, because of TikTok’s unique algorithm, it can recommend content it thinks you may like – meaning if you interact with normal fitness or food videos, you can potentially be shown pro-ana videos. And due to young people becoming more tech-savvy, they know that certain keywords are flagged or banned, and know to avoid them in order to not get their videos taken down.
A spokesperson for TikTok assured us that the app was “built to provide a positive place for creativity and prioritise the safety and wellbeing” of its users. “Content that supports or encourages eating disorders is strictly against our Community Guidelines and is removed,” the spokesperson went on to say. “As soon as this issue was brought to our attention, we took action banning the associated accounts and removing the content.”
We brought many dangerous videos to TikTok’s attention, some of which were detailing users’ dangerously low-calorie diets. The comments on these videos were also very worrying; users were giving dangerous tips to each other or pledging to be “ana buddies”.
Kiki Martire, a spokesperson for youth information website SpunOut, believes it’s of the utmost importance to be vigilant and always fact-check any information from TikTok videos.
“Information is being shared so rapidly on an app like this that there’s no way to put safety measure around it, which is a huge issue we’ve had with all forms of social media,” Martire said. “We want everyone to consider the sources of the information you’re taking in.
“There are many reliable sources of information for young people about their health, and you shouldn’t be taking in diet information from someone in a video, where you don’t know who it’s coming from, especially when you feel it’s damaging to you. There’s a lot of content there that is actively harmful.”
Emily* reached out to us and expressed how, despite never having second thoughts about food or her body image, she was lured into disordered eating after watching misinformed TikTok videos. “Me and my friends love TikTok, and would always send each other funny videos,” she said. “But after watching certain videos I would feel bad and started restricting my food because they make you feel like you should be eating really low calories.
“After a while I started planning a week long juice cleanse because I had seen videos from people saying they lost loads of weight during it. Then it just hit me that of course that wasn’t healthy –I can’t starve myself for a week.”
“I never even watched a huge amount of food videos – but sometimes random videos come up on your feed, which could be dangerous for anyone recovering from an eating disorder or in any way sensitive to food,” said Emily. “You can’t moderate the content that you see.”
TikTok doesn’t yet have the fact-checking supports that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have, in which there are alerts in place when certain information is dubious or unconfirmed, and where accounts spreading dangerous misinformation can be automatically deleted. “Please block these accounts yourselves if you think what’s being shares is untrue or dangerous,” Martire said.
“As people are taking in content, they should be checking in with themselves about how it makes them feel. So if you’ve seen some diet videos on TikTok and you leave the app and want to engage in dangerous eating behaviours, be aware of that, Acknowledge those feelings and maybe don’t use the app.”
Martire also stressed that the people posting these videos and spreading dangerous health information are also struggling themselves. “These young people are going through immense difficulties and don’t understand the ramifications of their actions.”
Martire also pointed out the majority of content on TikTok is positive and fun. “In saying that, of course if it’s an uplifting post that is telling you to feel beautiful in your own skin, that’s amazing and really positive.
“There is a lot of those videos on TikTok, good feels stuff, which is great and definitely the part of TikTok you should be looking out for.”
*Emily did not wish to disclose her surname for this article.