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A study done by a group of scientists in Australia indicates that cannabis use is portrayed positively on TikTok and the platform does little to curb this sentiment.
by Dessy Pavlova · June 16, 2022
A study done by a group of scientists in Australia indicates that cannabis use is portrayed positively on TikTok and the platform does little to curb this sentiment. This is alarming to some social scientists, who maintain that social media has a significant influence on substance use, especially in adolescents and young adults.
The authors of the study believe that TikTok’s effect might be magnified due to its unparalleled popularity, as compared to other social media platforms that may not have as many users or have tighter community guidelines. Whether this is true depends on who you ask — considering underage use has not been increasing with legalization. Youth organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy have long advocated for peer-to-peer drug education as a way of harm reduction, but is this the case on TikTok?
Launched in 2017, the free app that allows users to post short videos and add sounds and effects is now available in 150 countries, with about 1 billion monthly users as of January 2022. In the US, 60% of all users are between the ages of 16 and 24. The platform is the biggest global social media app, is especially popular among millennials and zoomers, and is easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone or a computer, making it a rich environment for content to spread quickly and widely.
The study found 881 TikTok videos from nine of the most popular hashtags related to cannabis and categorized them according to predefined themes. “Experiences,” for example, were videos where creators discussed their experience using cannabis and accounted for nearly 43% of the sample. Predictably, humorous and entertaining content (i.e. comedic skits) was popular and accounted for over 95% of the sample. Overall, about 54% of the content portrayed cannabis use positively and were the most watched videos on the platform, accounting for 417 million views. 15% of this content depicted active use of cannabis in the video. Negative depictions accounted for 28 million views and neutral depictions accounted for 331 million views.
The accessibility of TikTok is a cause for concern, according to this study, as these videos are available to anyone with internet access, including people not of legal age to purchase or use the plant. The study notes that many of these videos don’t have age restrictions or content warnings, a feature that is available for violent and fake news content (although its use has been inconsistent). The platform attempted to restrict substance use videos by removing hashtags such as “Cannabis” and “Weed,” however, the content is still available. The community, which includes users and companies alike, continues to post under hashtags like #Canna, #Legalize, and #PlantMedicine, which avoids detection by the platform's administrators.
The TikTok cannabis study warns that this content may have a negative impact on adolescents and young adults, skewing attitudes, increasing cannabis use, and encouraging problematic use. It highlights the need for stricter restrictions around content, especially for underaged audiences.
It should be noted that the platform contains a wide range of content on cannabis, some of which is informative, political, and science-based.
Adam Greenblatt, going by the username Weedpro, creates educational and comedic content on cannabis use, including the negative side effects THC. He has over 100,000 followers and 2 million likes on TikTok. Zak Constantine, a young politician and content creator from Goshen, New York, went viral with 500,000 views speaking to the town board regarding their “short-sighted regressive decision” to opt-out of allowing dispensaries to operate locally. In his speech, Constantine discussed the economic benefits of allowing dispensaries within the town and the statistics supporting the safety of cannabis as compared to alcohol, including the lower rate of traffic accidents. On the other hand, up-and-coming researchers like Riley Kirk, a Natural Product Chemistry Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is making her foray into TikTok as a science communication tool to discuss the chemistry of cannabis under the username @cannabichem.
This shows that responsible content that presents both the positive and negative sides of cannabis use and its wider social impact, in general, is out there if TikTok users and TikTok researchers take a hard look at who is really getting high and talking about it, and what the effects are.