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Researchers Call For More Age Restrictions on Cannabis TikTok Videos

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Feb 15, 2022   
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TikTok is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms of all time. The app gains an average of eight new users every second and some figures suggesting that it now boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users globally.

But with a third of these users reportedly being 14 or younger, and TikTok now surpassing Instagram as the go-to social platform among teens aged 12 to 17, concerns are being raised over the suitability of some of its content.

According to new research from the University of Queensland, more than half of cannabis-related TikTok videos portray the drug in a positive light, with around one-fourth of these videos directly promoting the social acceptability of cannabis use.

Given the platform’s popularity among young people, the researchers are calling on TikTok to do more to protect teenagers from the content hosted on its platform that might encourage substance use.

TikTok content tends to depict cannabis positively

To evaluate the current extent of cannabis-related videos on TikTok, the researchers used a snowball sampling procedure to identify and collect a number of publicly available, cannabis-related hashtags being used organically on TikTok, starting from videos tagged with #weed.

The most viewed videos from the top nine most popular hashtags (#stonertok, #stoner, #pot, #stonersoftiktok, #ouidtiktok, #stonervibes, #stoned, #420vibes, #cannamom) were then collected and analyzed by the researchers for common themes.

“Our research found 54 per cent of videos had a positive sentiment and were viewed more than 417 million times,” lead author Brienna Rutherford, a PhD student at the University of Queensland’s National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research, said in a statement. “Only 24 of the 881 videos – or 2.7 percent – warned audiences of the dangers associated with high-frequency cannabis use.

“This is concerning, as we know this exposure can influence an adolescent’s attitudes and potentially lead to problematic cannabis use, posing the risk of mental health issues or neuropsychological decline,” Rutherford added.

The most popular videos had a median view count of over 518,000 views, with nearly 100,000 likes and 930 comments. Just under 16 percent of the videos were found to actively depict cannabis or the use of cannabis products.

“We have seen an increase in the number of pro-cannabis groups that have started to pop up online,” said co-author Dr Gary Chan, a senior research fellow at the centre.

“From the videos analyzed in this research, we found a vast majority depicted cannabis use as humorous or entertaining. Around 42 per cent of videos featured the creator discussing their personal cannabis use experiences and close to a quarter promoted the acceptability of using it socially or culturally,” Chan added.

In total, more than 70 percent of the videos collected by the researchers were categorized as humorous, often depicting cannabis use in a comedy skit or comedic storytelling. Other less-common themes included instructional “how-to” videos, endorsements or promotions, and cannabis-related arts and crafts.

The need for better moderation

Previous research has shown that social media can shape substance use-related behaviors, and that young people who are exposed to cannabis marketing are more likely to use cannabis regularly and to have symptoms of cannabis use disorder (CUD). Given the extent of cannabis-related content on TikTok that is publicly available, popular, and under no special age restrictions, the researchers believe that TikTok should be making a more proactive effort to protect its young user base.

While TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit “the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances,” it is clear that these themes still persist on the platform. However, TikTok has recently made some moves to protect its young audience from risky content, including removing a number of hashtags that explicitly reference substance use.

Indeed, during the course of the study the hashtags #cbd, #maryjane, #weedchallenge, and #edibles were all removed from the platform for their overt references to cannabis use. While the researchers praised the decision, they do note that the original videos remained publicly available.

“TikTok has more than 1 billion active monthly users across the world. In America, a third of TikTok’s users are under the age of 14, and 63 per cent of people aged 12 to 17 use the platform on a daily basis,” Rutherford said. “There is a significant opportunity to minimize the exposure of positive substance use messaging through improved regulation and monitoring.”

“With over 1 million young Australians using TikTok, there is an urgent need for effective age restrictions or warning banners to be placed on publicly-available videos depicting substance use.”

TikTok has already introduced banner messages in an effort to combat misinformation on the platform and similar messages appear to discourage users from attempting risky actions seen in a video that result in injury. Adding banner warnings for substance-related content would be an easy-to-implement fix, the researchers say, and could have a real impact on subsequent behavior.


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