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Study Analyzes Cannabis Content on TikTok, Including Youth Concerns

An article published by the Research Institute Drug and Alcohol ReviewsTikTok mainly portrays cannabis use as positive. Brienna Rutherford was the lead author of the study. She explained how the idea came about. 

“Social media is a big part of the modern world, with adolescents reporting that they spend an average of eight hours online every day,” said Rutherford, a PhD candidate with University of Queensland in Australia. “Despite this high volume of use, little is known about the potential risks exposure to social media content depicting substance use may have on viewers. However, before you can assess the effects of exposure, we need to know what content is out there and accessible.”

The study, entitled “Getting high for likes: Exploring cannabis-related content on TikTok,” establishes the intent of analyzing cannabis content on TikTok, which has over one billion users, one-third of which are under 14 years of age. The average user of TikTok is between the ages of 12 and 17 years old.

There were seven main categories: Humor/Entertainment (77.74%), Experiences (42.90%), Lifestyle Acceptability (24.633%), Informative/How to (7.5%) Creativity (5.4%) and Warning (2.7%).

“‘Humour/Entertainment’ videos often used comedic skits or storytimes to portray cannabis use positively to viewers,” researchers wrote. “Videos frequently featured discussions of users’ personal cannabis ‘Experiences’ through storytimes, re-enactments, and videos taken during active use. ‘Lifestyle Acceptability’ was also promoted using hashtags associated with pro-cannabis use communities (e.g. #cannamom, #stonersoftiktok, #stonertok).”

Research shows that 54.14% (or 417,000,000) of all videos were depicted as positive. The majority of TikTok users were Caucasian men between 25 and 50 years old. This study only examined 50 videos that depicted actual consumption.

“The main take-home point from this study is that there is a high number of cannabis-related videos on TikTok that are a) publicly accessible via links (even without accounts!), b) have no age restrictions or content warning banners, and c) are promoting use of cannabis to viewers,” Rutherford added. “While many countries are moving towards legalization, that doesn’t mean cannabis use is without risk and none of this content addresses the potential negative health consequences associated with use.”

Rutherford explained how to identify the effects of TikTok-related cannabis videos. “The next step is obviously to assess whether viewing this content has any impact on viewers’ attitudes, behaviors or risk/norms perceptions around substance use,” said Rutherford. “Exposure to text- or image-based substance use content on platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been shown to influence the likelihood of substance use, so it is likely that a more engaging platform and content type (such as TikTok’s short-form videos) may have an even larger influence.”

TikTok has taken extra steps to alert viewers when a video is containing cannabis. The same applies to violent videos or other videos that may contain false information. 

“TikTok has taken some additional steps to regulate the availability of substance related content by removing access to hashtags which explicitly reference substance use (e.g., #cannabis). However, the videos themselves remain accessible—they are just no longer stored under these hashtags,” Rutherford said. “Removing the content or hashtags may also not be an effective approach as creators subvert hashtag rules anyway (using numerical values instead of letters ‘#w33d’ to get around the explicit reference rules).”

Although social media has become a hub for many cannabis entrepreneurs, other platforms like Instagram or Facebook often ban users from creating cannabis content. Chrissy Harless was a YouTuber who created high-profile content and had previously 46,000 subscribers. Her account was terminated recently without any explanation.