1 in 11 People Experience Health Issues Following Advice on TikTok

Female looking at a smartphone.Share on Pinterest
A majority of people under the age of 27 (Gen Z) say they turn to TikTok for health and wellness advice, while a growing number of people say they’ve experienced health issues following misinformation on the platform. Photovs/Getty Images
  • A new survey finds that Americans fall prey to health-related misinformation on TikTok.
  • 1 in 11 Americans had health issues after following advice from TikTok.
  • Some people think platforms and influencers should be held responsible for posting health-related misinformation.

In 2020, friends and family of Katrine Wallace, PhD, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, turned to her for answers about COVID-19.

To help inform and ease fears, she decided to create educational videos on social media.

“I would make a daily update, and my accounts were small at the time, mostly for family and friends. Those started getting shared with other people and before I knew it, my accounts got bigger,” Wallace told Healthline.

Today, her TikTok account has over 280,000 followers, and her Instagram has nearly 90,000. She continues to share public health information about COVID-19 and other health-related topics and debunks misinformation circulating on social media.

“There is a flood of bad information out there that is put out by people trying to sell stuff online, so I try to point people to the CDC or other sources made for lay people like their public health department,” said Wallace.

While she never imagined she would be an “influencer,” knowing that dangerous health misinformation and conspiracy theories exist on social media motivates her to continue to push back.

“I’m giving people the tools to have those conversations with their coworkers, with their family, with their uncle at Thanksgiving who thinks the vaccine has microchips in it,” she said. “Hopefully it has ripple effects and gets the message out there.”

A new survey of 1,000 Gen Z users by the personal trainer app Zing Coach found that 56% of respondents go to TikTok for health and wellness advice, while for 1 in 3, TikTok is the main source of health knowledge.

“Gen Z isn’t exactly the picture of perfect health — more than half of 18- to 25-year-old Americans are overweight — but it’s not for a lack of desire. Zing’s research shows considerable interest in pursuing health and well-being among the younger demographic,” Walter Gjergja, Chief Wellness Officer at Zing Coach, told Healthline.

“They’re just not as willing or able to pay for a personal trainer or work with a qualified doctor. Instead, they turn to TikTok, Google, and YouTube for advice because it’s fast and free.”

By doing so, he said they expose themselves to misinformation and body confidence issues.

Aaron B. Zimmerman, optometrist and associate professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University recently treated a patient who embraced a TikTok video that endorsed health benefits of staring at the sun.

“This individual viewed the sun for an extended period of time until it became unbearable, and she suffered permanent damage to her retinas,” he told Healthline. “I suspect that practitioners across disciplines are seeing patients that have experienced harm from questionable content on various forms of media.”

The Zing Coach survey found that 1 in 3 people admitted they don’t double-check the wellness advice they get from TikTok, while 1 in 10 said that a high number of likes or followers is enough to make the influencer trustworthy — regardless of their professional background.

“When we see an account with millions of followers and videos with an endless stream of positive comments from other users, our first thought is that the information shared must be true. However, likes and engagement are by no means an indication of an influencer’s trustworthiness,” said Gjergja.

Ultimately, for many influencers, what they push on social media is a means to a livelihood, and some spread misinformation if it pays well enough, he added.

Additionally, Wallace said the more sexy and compelling a video is, the more it’s going to spread.

“Conspiracy theories get millions of views because people think they have a secret the government doesn’t want them to know,” she said. “The algorithms work in a way that if you’re following people who put out misinformation, then you’re consistently getting bad information, and if you’re getting all your information from there then there is a big percentage of people who are not getting fact-based information.”

Calling out a dishonest influencer is like screaming into the void, said Gjergja.

“You could leave a message calling out the misinformation. However, it will soon get buried under a stream of comments from loyal fans who staunchly believe everything social media’s popular personalities say,” he said.

The effort of reporting misinformation is often not worth it to people if they don’t think the platform will remove the video, added Wallace.

“There are videos I report that say the vaccine has HIV in it, and it will come back as it doesn’t violate community guidelines. I’ve even had anti-sematic things come back as not violating guidelines,” she said. “[Platforms] get paid whether it’s good or bad information.”

She points to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, legislation that passed in 1996, which declares that service providers or individual people are not to be held liable for illegal content posted online by other people.

“The way accountability can start is by changing that legislation because now we have very far outgrown it. It still enables the platforms to do nothing about misinformation,” said Wallace. “Platforms have no incentive to [take action] because they make money the more things go viral and the more they keep engagement going,” said Wallace.

Holding people legally accountable for producing content and videos that contain misinformation is tricky because even though they know they are misleading or potentially harming others, they can claim their content is for entertainment reasons, said Wallace.

Banning material is a delicate issue that could violate the First Amendment, said Zimmerman.

“If people are harmed and there is strong evidence of malice by the content generator(s) then perhaps there are legal avenues that can be pursued,” he said.

However, he believes the best approach is for bad health information to be contradicted with evidence-based content produced by reputable individuals and organizations.

There are qualified experts on TikTok and other social media who aim to offer genuine, honest, and accurate health information.

When taking in medical advice or information, look for those with respected qualifications, such as an MD or PhD, and when taking fitness advice consider those with reputable certifications like those from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

“But don’t just believe the words in a self-proclaimed expert’s bio. Whether by reading reviews from past customers, scouring their LinkedIn profiles, looking at their longevity and standing in the wellness industry, or checking a trustworthy directory for their claimed profession, you need to do your research and fact-check their claims before you follow any advice,” said Gjergja.

Consider what type of scientific data they are sharing or backing their claims with.

“When I’m talking about something, I always try to share an article that I’m referring to. I try to make sure that people know it is evidence-based from a reputable source; I’m not saying things with no data to back it up,” said Wallace.

Always check with your doctor before acting on any health advice from people on social media, even if they appear reputable.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay in Touch

To follow the best weight loss journeys, success stories and inspirational interviews with the industry's top coaches and specialists. Start changing your life today!


Related Articles