BRISBANE, Australia — Content portraying vaping as cool and in a positive light is rampant on the popular social media platform TikTok, according to a new study. Researchers from Queensland University say that if an adolescent spends too much time on TikTok it may reinforce positive attitudes toward vaping and e-cigarettes.
“Of the 808 videos in our sample, we found that positive portrayals of e-cigarette use were viewed over 1.1 billion times, accounting for 63 percent of the total sample,” says lead study author and PhD student Tianze Sun, from Queensland’s National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research, in a university release. “Videos negatively depicting vaping and e-cigarettes only counted for 13 percent of the total sample, while 27 percent portrayed vaping and e-cigarettes neutrally.”
Making matters worse is the fact that there are currently no age restrictions in place for vaping content. As such, study authors stress the importance of implementing stricter control over such content on TikTok. Meanwhile, more and more studies are linking vaping with brain, lung, and heart damage. Unfortunately, vape use among teens has exploded in popularity in recent years. In 2014, estimates showed that about nine percent of U.S. high schoolers vaped. By 2019, that figure increased to 27 percent.
TikTok enjoys over 800 million monthly users and a third of its U.S. users are younger than 14 years-old.
“Considering accessibility of these videos and previous studies showing exposure to vaping-related content is associated with increased likelihood of future e-cigarette use, consideration of age restrictions on social media platforms is recommended,” Sun adds.
How are vapers beating TikTok’s rules?
TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit uploading “the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances,” and the platform does not allow advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products.
Based on number views over the course of a single day in November 2020 however, the most popular vaping TikTok hashtags include ‘#vape’, ‘#vapetricks’, ‘#juulgang’, ‘#puffbar’, ‘#nicotine’, ‘#vapenation’, ‘#vaping’, ‘#vapeshop’, and ‘#vapelife’.
Study co-author Dr. Gary Chan explains the vast majority of vaping videos on TikTok show it in a carefree and light-heart manner while neglecting to mention any of the health concerns involved.
“More than half the videos we studied fell under the thematic category of ‘comedy and joke,’” he says. “The next most common themes were ‘lifestyle and acceptability’ and ‘marketing.’”
“Videos that showed vaping tricks had a significantly higher number of views at 487 million compared to videos about nicotine and addiction at only 195 million,” Chan continues. “Adolescents are susceptible to peer influence, increasingly via social media, and this is a concern when emerging evidence suggests vaping has detrimental effects on the developing brain, lungs and heart.”
Kids mimic what they see
These findings are ultimately observational and can not establish causality. Still, study authors write “experimental and longitudinal data suggest that viewing other young people, friends, acquaintances or influencers vaping in fun and entertaining contexts, is likely to normalize e-cigarette use and make it a behavior to emulate.”
“Effective age restrictions would likely reduce adolescent exposure to the positive portrayal of vaping across social media platforms,” Dr. Chan concludes.
The study appears in the journal Tobacco Control.