TikTok videos that include vaping mostly show it in a positive light, according to new research in the journal Tobacco Control.
“There’s been a recent increase in young people using e-cigarettes, and this has raised public interest globally,” says Tianze Sun, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and lead author on the paper.
“This could partly be due to exposure to e-cigarette endorsements from friends and influencers on social media,” she adds.
“There’s a lack of effective age restrictions on these platforms. A lot of this content is being widely spread.”
Vaping and e-cigarette use has been touted as a less dangerous method of smoking, but its uptake by people who have never smoked before, and increasing evidence of adverse health effects from vaping, have raised concerns for public health. Previous research has examined vaping and e-cigarette use on other social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but video-sharing site TikTok, which launched in January 2019, has so far received less attention.
“TikTok has become the most popular social media platform among young people,” says Sun. “That’s why we decided to look at how e-cigarette use is portrayed on this platform.”
Sun and colleagues examined the most popular, publicly available videos from January 2019 to November 2020 that contained any of nine hashtags: ‘#vape’, ‘#vapetricks’, ‘#juulgang’, ‘#puffbar’, ‘#nicotine’, ‘#vapenation’, ‘#vaping’, ‘#vapeshop’, and ‘#vapelife’. They documented the likes, views and shares of the videos, as well as examining and coding their content.
In total, they examined 808 videos. These videos had been viewed an average of roughly 1 million times each, and had collectively been viewed over 1.5 billion times.
Nearly two-thirds of the videos (63%) portrayed vaping and e-cigarette use positively, racking up over 1.1 billion views in total. Roughly a quarter of the videos (24%) depicted vaping neutrally, while 13% portrayed it in a negative light.
Presenters in the videos were mostly male (71%), and 26% of presenters appeared to be under 18 years old. The researchers argue that this is good evidence for age-related regulation on the platform: using AI and human moderators, videos that portray vaping could be restricted to viewers over 18, they suggest.
The study did not examine whether these videos had changed the opinions or habits of people viewing them, and Sun says more research is needed in this area. But she points out that there’s evidence for links between e-cigarette exposure online and use in reality.
“There are a few experimental and longitudinal studies already investigating the association between exposure to e-cigarettes and e-cigarette use,” she says. “Many of these studies indicate e-cigarette advertising on social media is common, and that youth who are exposed to this content are more likely to report past or current e-cigarette use.”
While the study didn’t take location into account, Sun notes that vaping is less common among Australian young people than in other countries (such as the US). But she adds that this research is still good evidence for tighter age regulations on the site.
“Although Australia has taken a cautious approach to regulating e-cigarettes, TikTok has a global audience. Our study demonstrates that positive representations of vaping are widespread,” she says.
“We hope that this study will impact future regulatory framework for TikTok and other social media platforms around mandating effective age restrictions on videos portraying vaping positively.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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