TikTok has Untapped Potential to Convey COVID-19 Guidance, According to New Study out of University’s Public Health Department

An example TikTok post that provides public health information

A new study led by public health researchers at William Paterson University and Columbia University suggests the social media platform TikTok is rich with untapped potential to convey important public health messages, particularly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, the research paper by William Paterson University public health professors Corey Basch and Christie Jaime, along with Columbia’s Grace Hillyer, explores how Coronavirus information is being communicated on TikTok—a largely unexplored area, until now.

TikTok is a social media platform on which users share short videos. Since its worldwide release in 2018, it has soared in popularity, particularly among those ages 13 to 24. It now has 800 million users worldwide and 37 billion monthly views in the United States alone.

Searching TikTok content uploaded with the “Coronavirus” hashtag, researchers examined and analyzed 117 TikTok videos, 17 of which were created by the World Health Organization (WHO). Altogether, the videos analyzed in the study received more than a billion views.

Fewer than 10 percent of the videos mentioned how the virus is transmitted, symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention of viral spread. None of the videos, including those uploaded by the WHO, discussed death and death rates, viral incubation time, wearing a face mask or travel restrictions.

The most commonly portrayed topics were anxiety and quarantine, with little focus on transmission and preventing infection.

Lead researcher Basch and her team behind the study think this indicates a missed opportunity to engage young people with vital health information related to the global pandemic. TikTok could potentially be used to convey messages about controlling the spread of coronavirus by the strict enforcement of social distancing, for example. It is particularly important to impress this information upon the main TikTok audience of teenagers and young adults who can easily pass on the virus to more vulnerable and older family members, the researchers say.

They point out that because Coronavirus is a novel disease with widespread reach, there has been a heightened level of information seeking from the general public. Combined with a subsequent exposure to potential misinformation during the pandemic, the researchers say we are facing what WHO leaders have referred to as an “infodemic.”

“It’s paramount for public health professionals to tailor messaging in ways that make it most accessible,” Basch says. “It’s also essential to note that the credibility of TikTok as a source of information is threatened by those whose intentions are to undermine the health and safety of viewers. Identifying the types of barriers to using social media platforms for the benefit of health and safety is a crucial next step.”