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98% of videos hashtagged '#alcohol' on TikTok portray drinking in a positive light

More than 98% of the top #alcohol videos on social media platform TikTok portray the drug in a positive light, according to new research. File Photo by Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE
More than 98% of the top "#alcohol" videos on social media platform TikTok portray the drug in a positive light, according to new research. File Photo by Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE

Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Half of all TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24, and 7 in 10 teens say they regularly use TikTok.

The authors of a new study are concerned all those young people might be getting the wrong impression of alcohol use.

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According to a new survey, published Wednesday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 98 of the top 100 TikTok videos using the hashtag "#alcohol" portrayed drinking in a positive light.

All but four videos ignored alcohol's negative consequences, researchers said.

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"Social media platforms, such as TikTok, can influence health behavior," lead study author Alex Russell, assistant professor of public health at the University of Arkansas, said in a press release.

With more than one-third of TikTok users being too young to drink, the researcher said characterizing the content and themes published on the platform felt like an important move.

"For example, increased youth exposure to alcohol marketing on social media is linked to earlier drinking initiation and greater levels of overall alcohol consumption," Russell said.

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As of Sept. 17, 2020, the 100 videos analyzed by Russell and his colleagues had 1.7 billion views. Researchers found more than 40% were guide videos featuring recipes.

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More than two-thirds of the videos featured spirits, and 61% showcased people consuming multiple drinks in rapid success -- taking back-to-back shots, for example, or chugging from a bottle of liquor.

Many of the videos promoted the connection between alcohol and friendship, familiarity and camaraderie.

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While a few videos highlighted some of the negative consequences of drinking, such as hangovers or physical injury, they did so in a humorous, non-educational way.

"These videos were easily accessible through a simple internet search and could be viewed without ... encountering an age-verification process," researchers wrote in their paper. "Any non-registered person can fully interact with alcohol videos on TikTok, regardless of age."

Though TikTok prohibits the depiction of minors consuming alcohol, drugs or tobacco, Russell said it's not clear how effectively the ban is enforced.

Because more than a third of TikTok users are minors, Russell hopes to better educate parents about the types of content made readily available to teens on the social media platform. Previous studies suggest many TikTok videos also offer a positive portrayal of vaping.

"I would ask parents if they want TikTok to be where their kids get health information about topics such as alcohol use," Russell said.

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"I'd encourage parents to do a simple internet search of '#alcohol TikTok' and see if they are comfortable with the content and messages their children are exposed to," Russell said.

Russell said he would also like to see TikTok employ age-verification or some other security mechanism to prevent underage users from consuming alcohol-related content.

Finally, researchers suggest public health officials take advantage of TikTok's impressionable user base. Outreach campaigns can use social media platforms like TikTok to disseminate messaging about the science of alcohol's health realities.

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