I’ll admit it: like many others, I’ve wasted way too many hours of my life scrolling through TikTok. Gone are the days of similar platforms like Vine or Musical.ly, which have given normal people humongous platforms—but those who have tried to keep the flames of their 2016 popularity alive have admittedly somewhat succeeded. TikTok is Musical.ly’s successor, letting users upload videos of practically anything if it’s sixty seconds or less. But the quick-scrolling app has a dark side, and from what I’ve seen, it offers up trends that are eerily all too familiar.
One user uploaded a clip of herself cheekily smiling in the mirror, pointing at a caption reading “lets confuse ppl who have NORMAL relationship with food” before displaying pictures of things associated with disordered eating: a single cup of coffee cuts to a stock image of a woman pinching fat on her belly and a zero-calorie energy drink. Another created a video with the title “Zodiac Signs As Mental Illnesses.” In the background a song plays, captions appearing on each beat. Depression is equated with being a Taurus. Bipolar with being a Capricorn. ADHD with being a Leo. Is this funny? Or should viewers be concerned?
As much as I don’t want to promote the content I keep stumbling upon, I always get hooked. My attention is immediately caught, which raises a simple question—who else is watching these videos? The statistics aren’t settling. In the U.S., about two-thirds of TikTok users are teens or in their 20s, teenagers being the largest demographic on the app overall. I have a neighbor who’s entering fifth grade and regularly active on the app. The content that pops up on users’ For You pages isn’t fixed to appeal to one type of person over another; the chances that one user is seeing the same things as another are high. Is my young neighbor watching the same things that I am? Probably.
From what I’ve seen, people are posting “what I eat in a day” videos as if it’s a game of who can eat the least and still make it visually appealing to mass audiences. These videos flaunt clips of the minuscule meals users ate for breakfast, discussions of calories flooding the comments like it’s celebrity gossip. One creator’s food log went as such: at 11:30, a bowl of cereal. At 1, coffee. 2:30 in the afternoon, a Starburst. 5 in the evening, a bottle of Bai water. At 6, chips and salsa. When the video started garnering negative attention, a user defended the creator, saying, “To everyone saying it’s triggering, people aren’t on the internet to please you…” Another user responded, “It’s not that she’s asking to be shielded from triggers. Eating so few calories should NOT be normalized.” Tons of likes give the creator validation, but what about the viewers? What about those younger demographics that take everything at face value?
Don’t get me wrong—it’s extremely important to bring attention to topics that carry significant stigma like eating disorders and mental illnesses. But how much information can you thoroughly convey in a minute-long clip? Of all places, why is TikTok suddenly the new hotspot for activism? It shouldn’t be. Shame lurks in the comment sections of these videos, most commonly in the form of users belittling themselves for not looking like those on the screen. “I’m never eating again,” one says. “Going for a run, brb,” another jokes, thousands of likes signifying widespread agreement. “I don’t want to be sorry for my body but I also don’t want to ‘encourage’ eating disorders,” one user confesses. Can we use normalization as a justification for these TikToks when people are constantly expressing feelings of contempt over the content that’s being posted?
It’s no secret that when you’re hurting, it can be easier to deflect and laugh things off rather than face what’s making you suffer. Coping with humor can be rather effective if done properly, there’s no denying it. But TikTok doesn’t advertise this truth. This is obvious down to the app’s core—in its community guidelines (last updated in January of this year), the company speaks up on self-harm and suicide but not eating disorders. “We do not allow content that promotes self-harm or suicide, but we do allow our users to share their experiences in order to raise awareness about these issues,” the guidelines read. TikTok prides itself on maintaining a safe space for viewers and creators alike to interact, but it’s unreasonable. Their policies aren’t black and white. This confusion is furthered when it isn’t clear if something is meant to be laughed at or raise concern.
When it comes down to it, people can post whatever they want; that’s not going to stop. Yet we’ve seen this trend before; pro-ana content has had a strong digital foothold practically since the internet’s creation, thriving in spaces like Tumblr and shared interest groups on Myspace. It’s a culture that lives behind a screen. Pro-suicide and self-harm sites are out there, too. In a way, TikTok feels like an extension of this culture. This content almost demands that these parallels be drawn, that creators posting their body measurements be likened to the “thinspiration” photos of the 2000s and 2010s. While there’s no definitive way of telling how these videos are affecting viewers, TikTok should consider tightening its censorship policies given its rapidly growing popularity. It’s time to admit that TikTok isn’t helping normalize mental illness or eating disorders—instead, it’s only helping these existing problems fester.
By Ellie Greenberg
Illustration by Ashley Boling