Study Analyzes Cannabis Content on TikTok, Including Youth Concerns

A study analyzed TikTok and found that most cannabis-related videos are depicted as positive, as well as some concerns with youth use.

Nicole Potter

A research study published in Drug and Alcohol Review found that cannabis consumption is mainly depicted as positive on TikTok. However, lead author on the study, Brienna Rutherford, explained the thought behind the study. 

“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. An estimated 63% of users between ages 12-17 use TikTok daily.

Seven main categories were defined, including Humor/Entertainment (71.74%), Experiences (42.90%), Lifestyle Acceptability (24.63%), 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).”

Researchers estimate that 54.14% of videos (viewed collectively over 417 million times) were portrayed as positive. Also, most of the TikTok users on videos were Caucasian males between 25-50 years of age. Of the videos analyzed for this study, only 50 videos actually depicted consumption, such as smoking, vaping, or eating edibles).

“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 the next steps toward identifying the impact of cannabis-related videos on TikTok. “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.”

Researchers also concluded that TikTok takes extra precautions to warn viewers that a specific video contains cannabis. This is similarly done with violent videos, or videos that might portray 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).”

Social media channels have become home to many unique cannabis creators, although many other services such as Facebook or Instagram have frequently banned users who create cannabis content. High profile content creators such as YouTuber Chrissy Harless, whose account once had 46,000 subscribers, was recently terminated without an explanation. 

Nicole Potter

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