So-called “thin-spo,” short for “thin inspiration,” has long been a part of diet culture on the internet and specifically on social media. TikTok is the latest breeding ground for young people to obsess over body image. Child mental health experts express concern that the content is problematic and unhealthy.
TikTok is a social media platform where users express themselves through various types of videos. Content on the app ranges from lip-syncing to dancing to cooking and how-to’s. As of May 2020, the app had more than 800 million users throughout the world.
Although images that trigger negative body image feelings can occur at any time and in any place, there seems to be a great deal of dangerous thinking about body image, weight, and eating permeating TikTok. As has been the case with other social media platforms, TikTok is accused of promoting unhealthy social comparisons, eating, and fitness behaviour. Popular videos featuring young people with what the app considers “ideal body types” reinforce negative feelings and target a vulnerable audience.
An example of this trend includes users watching videos of other people making statements about eating behaviour and then copying those behaviours. Another video showed a user in a hospital room for eating disorder treatment expressing that she was scared of gaining water weight.
Another user posted a video of herself choosing not to eat chips after watching a video of a popular and thin user with a caption stating “TikTok reminds me not to eat.” Other trends on the app involve users posting videos that include their measurements hoping to be noticed by a modeling agency.
Comments on TikTok user videos also tend to focus on the bodies of the creators. Some have pointed out these types of comments are more prevalent on the app than they tend to be on other social media platforms. There’s a selection of how-to or tips-and-tricks style videos that encourage unhealthy weight loss and dieting methods on the app. Comments on videos reinforce unhealthy stereotypes and tend to be fixated on the message that thinness is preferred, even if it sacrifices health.
TikTok Promoting Body-Shaming Content
There is also evidence that TikTok is promoting this type of content. Internal documents reported on by Shape magazine in March show company policies suppress videos that show “abnormal body shapes” and other content featuring people that have an “unfit” appearance based on the app’s creators’ opinions. TikTok users have also shared that their videos were taken down and they believe there’s no other reason than their bodies not suiting TikTok’s “ideal body type.”
TikTok has restrictions in place that it claims protects users. They’ve also banned weight-loss ads and ads that promote “negative body image” on the app. But many don’t believe it’s enough.
The Butterfly Foundation, an eating disorder support group, has stated that the app needs to do more to “mitigate” the risk to users. Although helpful functions and the banning of hashtags has helped, there are loopholes. Children under the minimum age for users can access the content. Content is also unmoderated, which the app says is nearly impossible since it is user-generated content. The Butterfly Foundation is calling for TikTok to implement better policies and practices and find ways to moderate content and address the loopholes.
According to Melissa Wilson, the Butterfly Foundation’s head of communications, what has been done so far is not enough and videos are still getting posted and remain available that violate the app’s rules. Says Wilson, “While this in itself is an issue, what is even more worrying is that these behaviours are being shared with other TikTok users who may then engage in the same behaviours or make body, weight, shape, appearance comparisons to the person in the original video—who may indeed have an eating disorder. Unfortunately, the issue of exposure to harmful content such as this is heightened by the fact that TikTok, unlike other social media platforms, is relatively unmoderated.”
What Can Parents Do to Protect Their Children?
It’s unrealistic to ban your child from social media or expect that he or she will impose self-limitations. It’s also not healthy to assume that ongoing exposure will not affect your child negatively. The best solution is to limit the amount of time your child spends on social media and apps like TikTok.
It’s also helpful to practice positive affirmations. Adults can use affirmations if they are feeling low and they can share these affirmations with teens and pre-teens who are exposed to negative content. A few examples of positive affirmations include:
- “I appreciate everything my body does for me.”
- “I am worth more than my appearance.”
- “I am beautiful.”
- “I treat my body with respect and do not compare myself to other people.”
Another useful strategy for counteracting the bad feelings that can come from social media is journaling. Having a journal where you frequently list things you love about yourself and appreciate about your body helps you clarify your feelings and reinforce a positive body image. It might feel awkward at first, but you can help your child adjust to this type of journaling exercise by letting them know their journal is personal and encouraging them to write in it for a few minutes each day.
Meditation is also a great way to help kids and adults feel better about their bodies. There are many different meditation videos online that address self-confidence and body image. If one of the phrases from above feels comfortable, you can use that as a mantra during meditation. Or you can simply meditate without any specific thought and use it as a tool for relaxation. Often, quieting the mind is the best way to release anxiety and stress and feel better overall.