16 May 2023
By Daryl Austin, Forbes
Parents worried about the dangers their teens face when using social media may have new cause for concern. While social platforms have already been shown to put teens at risk for mental health challenges such as sleep disruption, exposure to bullying and peer pressure, and increased cases of depression and anxiety, new research shows that teens on TikTok are also being influenced to take up vaping.
Though most kids know that traditional smoking is bad for their health, vaping has become popular, in part, because it’s a trendy practice that many teens don’t realize is harmful. That’s one reason e-cigarettes, also called e-cigs, vapes and vape pens, are favored over traditional tobacco products among youth. Indeed, 14.1% of U.S. high school students used e-cigarettes in 2022, while only 2.0% smoked cigarettes.
As with cigarettes, nicotine is the primary agent in e-cigarettes, and it has been shown to be just as addictive in either form. Similar to cigarettes, e-cigarettes have also proven to raise one’s blood pressure, cause chronic lung disease and increase one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of an outbreak of injury and death associated with vaping, including 2,807 cases of vaping use-associated lung injury (EVALI) and 68 vaping-related deaths in one year alone.
What’s more, the American Heart Association warns that daily e-cigarette use increased from 34.5% in 2017 to 44.4% among users just a few years later, showing that less casual forms of vaping increased even as states pushed back with higher legal age requirements and more prominent warning labels for e-cigarette products.
Among the factors contributing to vaping’s rising numbers is TikTok, per researchers at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Despite the social media giant’s policies against the promotion of drugs, controlled substances, alcohol and tobacco, the team found that videos promoting vaping are rampant on the site. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
“The sheer amount of potentially harmful content being fed to young people on TikTok shows self-regulation is failing,” says Jonine Jancey, professor of health sciences at Curtin School of Population Health and lead researcher of the study. “Of the 264 videos related to e-cigarettes that we studied and which had a total of 2.5 million views, 97.7% portrayed them positively,” she explains. “These (videos) used humor, music, shared vaping tricks and referred to a ‘vaping community’—supporting the normalization of these products,” Jancey says.
Among other issues the team found was that one in four of the vaping-related videos directly violated TikTok’s content policy by also promoting the vaping products as being available for purchase. Such content is often posted “by influencers who may actually be paid by the e-cigarette industry to promote their products, although this is not disclosed and young people watching these videos may not even know they are being advertised to,” explains Tama Leave, a co-author of the study and a professor of internet studies at the Curtin School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry.
“It seems there are no major consequences for those who do not follow TikTok guidelines and violate content policy,” says Jancey. “Social media platforms can decide the consequences for breaches of their policies, but they have a clear financial incentive not to punish people who breach their policies.”
Though TikTok was the primary focus of this study, the team is working to include other popular social media platforms in future research, namely Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.