Teens and teens might turn to TikTok for more about sex when their typical sex education isn’t enough. But the videos on the platform aren’t filtered for misinformation and don’t give teens a way to ask additional questions, ratings a new analysis.
Sex education offered in schools in the United States is generally inadequate – most states do not require children to learn topics such as contraception, consent, and gender diversity. Information about sex, however, is spreading over TikTok, which has millions of teen and adolescent users.
To rate the sex education information on TikTok, an author of a new study created an account as a 15-year-old, uploaded 100 videos under the hashtags #sexeducation and #healthclass, and categorized them. More than half focused on male and female anatomy or sexual pleasure, with most focusing on female anatomy and female sexual pleasure. Thirteen percent spoke about contraception, and only five of the sample covered other aspects of sexual health, such as safer sex, consent, and how to navigate health care.
The volume of content on Female Sexual Anatomy and Pleasure on TikTok shows an area where mainstream sex education is not effective, the study’s authors note in their review. If teens look to TikTok for information on these topics, it may mean they aren’t getting it elsewhere.
Having a place to privately view information that could answer questions about sex might be helpful. However, teens who watch these videos don’t have a clear or easy way to get additional information if they have more questions, the authors said. They also may not have a simple or clear way to tell if a video contains misinformation. Some healthcare professionals make videos and answer questions on TikTok, but there are so many videos that it’s hard to keep up with them all.
“The ever-increasing amount of content available on TikTok makes responding to all the misinformation impractical, and there is no guarantee that a user will ever encounter these corrective videos,” the authors wrote. Other studies show that bad information about other areas of health, such as COVID-19 and prostate cancer, has spread on the platform.
Considering the size of the platform – TikTok recently eclipsed one billion monthly users worldwide – experts should conduct more research to assess the accuracy of the sexuality education information presented there, the study concluded. This recommendation is in line with a recently proposed research agenda for TikTok, which included a call for researchers to study the medical advice given on the platform.
In the meantime, doctors should ask patients about their use of social media and could use it as a starting point to answer questions or dispel any misinformation. “Providers have a critical role to play in anticipating common myths and misconceptions and providing correct information on sexual health topics,” the authors wrote.