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TikTok Riddled With Misleading Info on Health: Study
  • Posted April 25, 2024

TikTok Riddled With Misleading Info on Health: Study

Young people researching health topics on TikTok will find an alarming amount of misinformation on the platform, a new study says.

About 44% of TikTok videos related to sinusitis contained non-factual information, researchers reported recently in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Further, almost half of the videos came from “non-medical influencers” – content creators with more than 10,000 followers who did not identify themselves as medical professionals.

These videos sometimes promote genuinely dangerous “treatments,” the researchers added.

At the very least, the videos cause confusion or lead people to delay effective care in favor of half-baked alternative therapies.

For example, one recent trend urged people to treat nasal congestion by shoving whole cloves of garlic up their noses, researchers noted.

“I frequently have patients in the clinic asking me questions about things they saw online or on social media, and I have found that many times the information has steered patients in the wrong direction,” said senior researcher Dr. Christopher Roxbury, a surgeon and rhinology expert at University of Chicago Medicine.

“In some cases, I see patients who have already sought out and undergone such treatment without any benefit; in rarer cases, they’ve been harmed,” Roxbury added in a university news release.

Health information has flooded TikTok alongside catchy dances and silly dares, researchers said. Hashtags like #celiactok, #diabetestok and #sinustok have millions of views, as people with health problems search out information and connect with other patients.

“Every type of ‘Tok’ exists – that’s just how the internet works,” said researcher Rose Dimitroyannis, a third-year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “Little tiny segments of the population find one another and make waves.”

Some health misinformation found there is relatively harmless, like when people were putting potatoes in their socks to “draw out toxins,” researchers said.

But other misinformation is actively dangerous, like anti-vaccine content or videos that encourage people to drink borax with their morning coffee, they said.

“There is high-quality and factual information out there on social media platforms such as TikTok, but it may be very difficult to distinguish this from information disseminated by influencers that can actually be harmful,” Roxbury said.

To get an idea of how much harmful misinformation is being propagated on TikTok, the research team focused on a specific health condition and performed their search during a single 24-hour period. That strategy was meant to limit the effects of the ever-shifting algorithm that drives TikTok.

The team searched TikTok using specific hashtags related to sinusitis, including #sinusitis, #sinus and #sinusinfection. They then cataloged the videos based on uploader types, content categories and content types, and assessed the videos for reliability and understandability.

They found that non-medical influencers produced videos about daily life or comedy rather than trying to impart medical advice.

Researchers also found that medical professionals on TikTok produced high-quality educational content that laid out solid facts and compared the harms and benefits of different treatments.

Only 15% of videos from medical professionals contained non-factual information, compared to nearly 60% of videos from non-medical influencers, results show.

“Medical professionals are people; they can still say wrong things,” Dimitroyannis said. “But overall, health experts are posting more beneficial content.”

However, there was also a fair share of potentially dangerous nonsense.

On the day researchers were looking at sinusitis-related TikToks, a trend emerged involving people shoving whole cloves of garlic up their noses to relieve congestion.

Blowing your nose after inserting garlic can expel more mucus, but that’s because the irritation caused by the garlic increases production of mucus, researchers said.

At the same time, people are at risk of damaging their nasal tissue or clogging their nasal passage by shoving in a whole clove of garlic, researchers added.

"Just to put it out there -- don't put garlic in your nose,” Dimitroyannis said. "It wasn't coming from a bad place, but as many trends do, it tended to become quite unsafe.”

Unfortunately, such messages have greater visibility on TikTok because non-medical influencers produce much more content.

Health care professionals could help right this imbalance by becoming more active on social media, researchers said.

“If you’re a healthcare expert with any interest in content creation, you could make a difference,” Dimitroyannis said. “Someone could see your video and get the health information they need instead of seeing something that could hurt them.”

More information

Media Literacy Now has more on media literacy.

SOURCE: University of Chicago, news release, April 23, 2024

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