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Maggie Stoner

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Harmful health and fitness advice has the habit of infiltrating social media landscapes, and it looks like TikTok is the newest – and potentially most dangerous – vessel for this advice to run rife.

The average TikTok user spends 52 minutes of their day on the app. That’s over 850 minutes a month, and 18,928 minutes a year. With these statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that TikTok has become the cultural phenomenon it is today – with popularity skyrocketing during the peak of widespread lockdowns, and now garnering approximately 1 billion monthly users – 60% of those belonging to Gen z. Clearly, TikTok has become an indispensable asset in the lives of many children and teens across the globe – but as parents, have you ever questioned the kind of harmful messaging this app could be sending your kids?

At the end of 2019, I opened TikTok for the first time. Periodically opening and closing the app every day, I consumed dance videos, funny skits, ‘daily vlogs’, and other light-hearted content that was inundating my feed. At first it seemed harmless, but it wasn’t until 2020, when plunged into the first of many lockdowns here in Melbourne, that I realised how much TikTok content I was subconsciously absorbing.

Face-to-face with reoccurring bouts of ‘lockdown boredom’, I was continually sucked into the TikTok quicksand of mindless scrolling. I wasn’t alone in this. For 4–15-year-olds, the average scrolling time per day is 80 minutes – a significantly longer chunk of the day than our 52 minutes. Although these statistics may seem shocking, the unlimited stream of consecutive, relatively short videos to scroll through – a 3-minute option only recently introduced – makes extended periods of scrolling much harder to consciously limit.

It’s all in the algorithm.

For a relatively new platform, TikTok has managed to generate a large cultural standing, carving out a previously unmatched space for mass influence.

The addictiveness of the app – a reason it is so popular – can be partly attributed to its cutting-edge algorithm – highly developed in its ability to shape users’ ‘For You’ pages to their unique ‘level of interest’. Indicators like finishing a video from beginning to end, user location and the types of videos users interact with, all contribute to the personalisation of user feeds. However, when the algorithm is pervasively feeding health advice, regardless of its validity, to impressionable children and teens – without their explicit consent to do so – this personalisation has the potential to turn sinister.

Health and Fitness advice is well established in the social media ecosystem. Beginning in Youtube communities, it eventually bled into Instagram feeds and now more recently,  TikTok has taken the reigns.

My growing suspicion towards TikTok didn’t begin until I decided to “get back into fitness” – like many did during lockdown – using TikTok’s search bar to source workout ideas and routines. It was then, that the content on my feed slowly began to change. All of a sudden, whenever I opened the app, I was flooded with videos about different workouts, “how to be in a calorie deficit”, and ‘what I eat in a day’ videos, often perpetuated by slim and toned creators, who often didn’t show a realistic amount of food.

 

Through looking at a couple of workout videos, I was unknowingly placing my “interest” in the health and fitness category on TikTok, which the algorithm then held onto, and adapted the content it showed me to reflect that. Eventually, the content on my TikTok feed extended beyond the workout ideas that I initially sought out, and onto advice about my diet, things I should or shouldn’t be eating or drinking, and different workouts to give me a particular desired body type. I was overwhelmed.

What’s wrong with health and fitness advice?

Although these types of videos may not strike some users as outrightly harmful, the pervasive nature of diet culture and the fitness industry when fed consistently to impressionable users, has the potential to garner harmful perceptions of body image and obsessive behaviours, far too young.

This largely stems from the widely engrained behaviour, of associating morality with different diets or lifestyles. Chocolate is seen as “bad” or “junk”, vegetables are “good” and “clean”, and going to the gym everyday will make you “better than” someone who does not.

 

By assigning so much moral value to the foods we choose to eat and exercise we choose to do, the likeliness of guilt when we don’t do these things, is much higher. This moral value is ultimately delineated from the fact that a large part of society continues to subconsciously perpetuate fatphobic narratives and maintain thinness as the gold standard for how a woman should look.

These ideals are further exacerbated on TikTok, due to the feedback economy of the platform, whereby comments and likes denote how videos are generally perceived. A recent example of this was called out by Emma Matthews (@sheismarissamatthewss on TikTok), who concluded that the many comments on TikTok “reinforce thin privilege and fatphobia”. She compared the comments of her ‘what I eat in a day video’ – where she got criticised for eating three eggs and using an “inappropriate amount of olive oil” – to the comments of ‘thin’ creators’ food videos, who were predominantly praised for what they eat – therefore demonstrating how users often idealise and favour those who fit into their preferred body type.

Therefore, if teens and tweens manage to get onto the “side” of TikTok swarmed with health and fitness advice, the persistent messaging of the “perfect” diet and lifestyle, has the potential to generate obsessive or harmful relationships with food and exercise, in an attempt to mirror what they see from their favourite creators.

Amid the more latent presentations of diet culture, although more hidden, are pro-anorexia accounts, particularly dangerous in their encouragement of starvation and extreme restriction around food. It was when one of these videos popped up on my TikTok feed, with the caption “If you ate over 1200 calories today you are fat”, that I recognised the true danger of TikTok’s personalised algorithm. I had never searched for this ‘pro-ana’ content, nor expressed any interest in videos on restrictive eating or diets. But it is accounts like these, despite efforts from TikTok to remove them from the platform, have the potential to be grouped into the health and fitness category, and find their way to the “For You Pages” of teens and tweens.

Body image isn’t a new issue.

Concerns around body image in children and adolescents are already an unfortunately common occurrence, with the Mission Australia 2020 Annual Youth Survey reflecting that 33% of participants saw body image as an area of major concern in their lives. Another survey in 2021 showed that out of 93 students, 45% showed a high level of concern for their body image. It is clear the ubiquity of body image concerns in children and adolescents – an issue that is arguably not improved by the persistent nature of TikTok’s algorithm.

Considering previous research that discovered girls ages 5-8, when simply looking at a Barbie Doll, experienced body dissatisfaction and a desire for thinness, it is important to recognise the capacity for TikTok – and social media in general – to project this bombardment of health and fitness advice onto their audience, without regard for the young and vulnerable nature of the users they are targeting.

If looking at a Barbie doll can cause that much harm, think about what a carefully curated selection of targeted health and fitness videos can do.

How do I talk to my kids about this?

The solution to this doesn’t come with banning your kids from TikTok or confiscating their phones upon hearing this information. Our society is saturated with potentially harmful information around health and fitness, and perpetuations of a thin-ideal – but it is the way that kids perceive this information that defines the harm it can cause.

One way that you can help reinforce positive relationships with health and fitness with your children, is by modelling that positive relationship yourself. Some ways parents can do this are:

  • Engaging in healthy eating habits yourself: consistently participating in fad diets or outwardly expressing guilt for eating certain foods are behaviours children can pick up on, and implement into their own lifestyles at a later point.
  • Making meals a positive and communal experience: research has shown that a frequency in family meals can lead to inverse effects of disordered eating, and better psychological outcomes for children.
  • Teaching kids about critical thinking: by explaining how to practice critical thinking while on social media, it becomes easier for children and teens to recognise the misinformation or unhealthy content that they might be exposed to, and purposely disengage with it. Often, parents are also encouraged to watch TikTok’s with their children, and openly talk about the misrepresentation that they see.

I, like many others, have been exposed to the more sinister side of TikTok health and wellness, but through educating myself and talking to others, I have become aware enough about diet culture and health advice, that I can recognise and ignore misinformation. By navigating TikTok with intention and purpose, seeking out trusted sources and shielding myself from the guilt-shrouded influence of diet culture, I am able to be largely unaffected by the persistent messaging of TikTok’s health and fitness community – and I encourage teens and kids using TikTok to do the same.

Sydney family GP and TV Personality, Dr Ginni Mansberg, discusses the challenges of parenting teenagers and offers parents advice on how to guide modern adolescents, in her latest book, The New Teen Age, co-authored with Jo Lamble.

The exhaustion that comes with raising infants and toddlers is an age-old tale – but the emotional toll so often experienced by parents of teenagers can be even more challenging, especially now with potential perils around technology.

As kids transition into the world of teenager-dom, they’re exposed to a myriad of new risks like vaping, pornography and sexting – and as parents, it can be difficult to know when and how to step in.

High-profile Sydney family GP and TV personality, Dr Ginni Mansberg, stresses the importance of facing these issues head on and without judgement in her new book, co-authored with clinical psychologist Jo Lamble, The New Teen Age: How to support today’s tweens and teens to become healthy, happy adults .

A compilation of science-backed evidence, anecdotal advice and strategical conversation starters, the book hones-in on contemporary and previously overlooked issues like porn consumption, sexting, screen time, social media and sleep; all whilst promoting a judgement-free and practical space for parents seeking guidance.

Ginni says that many parents were coming to her and Jo’s clinics, overwhelmed by the pressures associated with raising their developing children.

“There was a lot of tension, a lot of love, a lot of fear, a lot of blaming themselves in guilt and a lot of anger from the kids”, Ginni shares.

“It just seemed that quite a few things had changed since more dominant parenting books were around.”

Authors Ginni and Jo combine knowledge, not only from their own practice in raising tweens and adolescents, but their 40 years of medical and psychological experience, providing readers with an updated perspective on how to navigate that turbulent time between childhood and adulthood.

Ginni says the key motivation toward the creation of the book was the desire “to bring everyone up to speed and close the gap to bring parents and kids together.”

‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts’

Like many parents of teens, Ginni understands the tumultuous experience of trying to effectively parent through puberty, and the physical and psychological shifts that come with that. She highlights that the more obvious physical changes, such as body hair and breasts, are not the most significant change these teenagers experience, rather it is the increase in hormones and subsequent changes in the brain that are the most daunting.

She reveals that as early as seven years old, children are “hitting that percentage of body fat that’s required to make sex hormones.”

Ginni also discusses the valuable role of Oxytocin, the “love hormone”, which is released primarily in response to experiences of trust, social bonding and, most obviously, love.

“Teenagers have very sensitive oxytocin receptors,” she explains. She maintains that due to this, teenagers are in fact “primed to be quite intense in their feelings. They are so devoted to each other, the friends are so intense, their first love is so intense – even if it’s a person they’ve just met on Instagram.”

In this, Ginni urges parents to acknowledge the reasons behind their teenager’s mood swings and melodramatic tendencies. Rather than consistently clashing heads, it’s important to understand that it’s in a teens nature to be a bit ‘over the top’ sometimes.

Your teens are not getting enough sleep.

Another question Ginni and Jo probe parents to think about, is the amount of sleep your teens are getting. Evidence show us that teenagers need 9 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night to function at their highest capacity. Ginni explains that because teenagers continue to go to bed later – then get up early for school – a “conga line of horror” can ensue.

Did you know how many issues can arise from lack of sleep? When teens consistently stay up late (more often than not at the clutches of a smartphone) and rack up large amounts of sleep debt, they become susceptible to “increases in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, massive amounts of risky behaviour – whether its drugs, sex, sending a dick pic, taking a nude picture or saying something bitchy – decreased academic performance, decreased sport performance, acne and weight gain,” Ginni warns.

The New Teen Age author explains that these potential consequences, albeit scary, can be used to the advantage of parents trying to get through to their teens.

“In some ways,” she says, “the conga line of horror [from lack of sleep] is your ‘line in’ with the kids.”

If staying up late on phones is the issue, explaining the effects that lack of sleep can have, will provide them with an incentive to get more sleep themselves, without having the proverbial fight about leaving their phone downstairs.

Sexting and Porn – How Do I Bring it Up?

A newer conversation in the parenting world – and a necessary one – is how to navigate sexting and pornography consumption in teens. Sexting and sending nude photos, in particular, are a more recent development in teenage behaviour, exacerbated by the increasing reliance on social media to communicate and flirt with potential romantic partners.

“It is incredibly common,” Ginni says. “A lot of these kids aren’t seeing each other in person and especially during the pandemic, they aren’t seeing each other at all, so their way of flirting can be sending a pic, and they are biologically programmed to be into risk taking.”

In response to the influx of risqué photos and sexts being sent between teens, Ginni advises parents to reject protective instincts to ban teens from doing this or confiscate their phones, and instead lead with compassion and understanding, having conversations that say, “if you’re going to sext, at least do it in a safe way.”

Teenage porn consumption follows the same pattern. It is inevitable that your teens will either stumble across, or actively seek out, pornography – but it is the conversations that we have surrounding it that will limit its harm.

“Surveys have shown that what they are looking at is a video that usually preferences male pleasure,” Ginni explains. She maintains that they probably “don’t really understand the difference between what healthy, consensual sex is, and what they’re seeing online.”

Ginni persists that the only way to fix this, and help teenagers understand the implications of the risky behaviour they are attracted to, is “to be having these conversations with our kids.”

However, it doesn’t have to be the uncomfortable, grimace-inducing conversation that parents often imagine. Ginni provides readers with resources to help facilitate difficult conversations, one being ‘It’s Time to Talk’, which exists to encourage conversations about what constitutes healthy and safe relationships – a particularly important topic for teenagers who are forming unrealistic perceptions of relationships that are perpetuated through pornography.

Ultimately, Dr Ginni’s philosophy doesn’t advise controlling or limiting the actions of teenagers, rather influencing their decisions and thoughts through conversation, and in doing so, creating a safe passage for communication between the parent and the child.

“They need to push boundaries and they need to make mistakes, because otherwise they are spectacularly ill-equipped to face what is coming to them,” she says.

“We, as parents, need to use a certain amount of judgement – by knowing our kids and also understanding that they’re going to have to make some mistakes – to slowly take the training wheels off the bike.”

Featuring the enlightened words of Dr Ginni Mansberg, co-author of The New Teen Age: How to support today’s tweens and teens to become healthy, happy adults, published by Murdoch Books.