The $1.7 trillion federal spending bill being negotiated right now to avert a government shutdown later this week may spell bad news for TikTok. The spending package could pass with provisions that ban TikTok from government devices. Last week, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed such a bill, after several states have taken similar actions. Another bill introduced in the Senate would ban TikTok altogether.
But TikTok doesn’t just represent security threats or a way to endlessly waste time. New research shows that it’s also a common source of health information, especially for young adults.
According to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults released earlier this month from CharityRx, a discount pharmacy service, one-third of GenZers consult TikTok for health advice and another 44% turn to YouTube before turning to their doctor.
Overall, one in five Americans reportedly consult TikTok before their doctors when seeking treatment for a health condition; the same proportion said they trust health influencers more than medical professionals in their community. The top reasons include accessibility (37%), affordability (33%), and approachability (23%). Nearly one in five (17%) said they turn to influencers to avoid judgment from medical professionals or because they don’t have access to a medical professional.
“TikTok is the next WebMD,” said Ellen Rudolph, 28, founder of WellTheory, a platform for people with autoimmune conditions which recently announced it had raised $7.2 million in seed funding.
Rudolph learned firsthand the power of social media as a source for health information when she started to share her own experiences with an autoimmune condition on TikTok. Her videos garnered millions of views.
“I personally have experienced this dramatic shift in the health research habits of our generation,” she said. “As the social media landscape continues to evolve and change, we need to open the dialogue about how to meet our patients where they are.”
One-third of Americans reported that they turn to social media influencers for health advice on topics such as anxiety (34%), depression (34%), and depression (33%). Among Gen Zers, these figures were even higher. More than half (55%) of Gen Z respondents said they seek advice from social media influencers on anxiety while 49% and 44% seek out information from influencers on depression and weight loss, respectively.
The accessibility and convenience of social media drives John Dave, 32, a Massachusetts-based arborist, to use TikTok instead of going to a doctor.
“It is easier and more convenient. I have limited access to healthcare due to my financial situation, so I can’t always afford to go to a doctor or pay for prescriptions. I also don’t always have the time to make an appointment with a doctor due to work and life commitments,” he said. “TikTok also makes it easy to connect with people who have similar health issues, which provides me with a sense of community and support.”
Eva Keller, 28, has found support on social media that she did not get from her doctors. The California-based travel blogger said she’s been experiencing “bizarre, unexplainable” symptoms for a little more than a year. She said the doctors she has seen haven’t been able to figure out why.
“In my experience, none of my doctors have been proactive in trying to figure out the root cause of my symptoms,” Keller said. “To get them to do anything, I have to approach them with possible conditions I think could be the cause. Essentially they actually want me to self-diagnose instead of going through their own list of what my diagnosis could be.”
That’s where Keller said TikTok comes in. She sees videos of women her age who have similar symptoms. Many have also experienced doctors who run one test at a time and then hit a diagnostic wall, not knowing what to do next.
Keller said she eventually gave up on prompting her doctor to try more tests, inspired by what she sees on TikTok.
“I decided that as I come across more of these videos I would just do whatever they said helped cure them or mitigate their symptoms to the best of my ability and see if it helps me,” she said. “In the beginning this was partially done with the guidance of a doctor, but at this point I’ve just taken it upon myself to see what works.”
So far, Keller said she has cut out certain foods and replaced ice cold water with room temperature water, with some positive effects.
“I’ve actually made more progress in the past month since I quit seeking input from doctors than I have in the entire year that I was trying to get a diagnosis,” she said.
Kelsey Riley, 30, from South Carolina, is herself a registered nurse and plant-based recipe developer who said she often gets nutrition information and tips from social media.
“I love using TikTok to find this information because it’s so easy to access,” Riley said. “You don’t need an appointment, you don’t need insurance, and the information is available to anyone with an account.”
But Riley doesn’t blindly trust what she sees online.
“You have to make sure that the individual you’re getting this information from is a trusted source,” Riley said. “When looking for nutrition information on TikTok, I’m always sure to get my info from a registered dietician with the proper credentials.”
Like Riley, most consumers surveyed look for influencers with appropriate credentials. More than half (55%) trust influencers with medical accreditation or credentials and 40% look for the influencers’ years of experience.
Less tangible sources of trust also factor in consumers’ perceptions of influencers. About one-quarter of survey respondents said relatability to a shared personal experience (26%) and the influencer’s personal triumph over a health condition (22%) make them credible.
These may not be the best reasons to trust influencers, according to Matthew A. Dolman, founder and senior partner at Dolman Law Group.
“The vast amount of medical misinformation found on social media is alarming,” Dolman said. “It is important to research an issue and determine if the source for a claim or alleged finding was sourced by a reputable medical journal. Be wary of anecdotal evidence as what worked for one person may not apply to all and you could be subjecting yourself to further danger.”
Many consumers surveyed heed this warning. Three-quarters said they fact-check endorsements made by health influencers and 89% think it’s likely that social media influencers contribute to health misinformation online. Another 36% are downright skeptical, saying they don’t trust influencers to provide honest advice about brands they recommend.
Despite skepticism and the fact that only 17% of consumers surveyed said they trust influencers more than doctors for health information, that doesn’t stop many people from acting on influencers’ advice. Though celebrities were rated as the least trusted for advice on medications, 51% of consumers said celebrity endorsements increase their intent to purchase a drug or supplement.
To get good healthcare and appropriate treatment, Dolman offers simple advice: “Completely different medical issues can manifest with similar symptoms and the required course of treatment may differ greatly,” he said. “Hence why it is vital to consult with a real licensed physician either in person or at least via telemedicine.”