Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Teens and adolescents might be turning to TikTok to learn about sex when their typical sex education isn’t sufficient. But the videos on the platform aren’t screened for misinformation and don’t give teens ways to ask additional questions, notes a new analysis.
Sex education offered in schools in the United States is usually inadequate — most states don’t require kids to be taught about topics like contraception, consent, and gender diversity. Information about sex, though, is spreading on TikTok, which has millions of adolescent and teen users.
To evaluate the sex education information on TikTok, one author of a new study created an account as a 15-year-old, downloaded 100 videos under the #sexeducation and #healthclass hashtags, and categorized them. Over half either focused on male and female anatomy or on sexual pleasure, with most focusing on female anatomy and female sexual pleasure. Thirteen percent talked about contraception, and only five of the sample covered other aspects of sexual health — like safe sex, consent, and how to navigate health care.
The volume of content on female sexual anatomy and pleasure on TikTok shows one area traditional sex education isn’t effective, the study authors note in their analysis. If teens are looking to TikTok for information on those topics, it might mean they’re not getting it elsewhere.
Having a place to privately see information that might answer questions about sex could be helpful. However, adolescents looking through those 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 an easy or clear way to determine if a video includes misinformation. Some health care professionals make videos and answer questions on TikTok, but there are so many videos that it’s difficult to keep up with them all.
“The ever-growing quantity of content available on TikTok makes responding to all misinformation impractical, and there is no guarantee a user will ever encounter these corrective videos,” the authors wrote. Other studies show that bad information about other areas of health, like COVID-19 and prostate cancer, has spread on the platform.
Considering the size of the platform — TikTok recently eclipsed a billion monthly users worldwide — experts should conduct more research evaluating the accuracy of sex education information presented on it, the study concluded. That 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 social media use and could use that as a jumping-off point to answer questions or clear up any misinformation. “Providers have a critical role to play in anticipating common myths and misunderstandings and providing correct information about sexual health topics,” the authors wrote.