Many people think the popular social media app TikTok is only used to post dancing videos, but there is evidence that people can find community and support through it. An article published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence explores substance use recovery-focused videos on TikTok.
Substance use disorders can be extremely detrimental to people suffering from them. Fortunately, there are many treatments for substance abuse that have been shown to be effective. In addition to interventions, recovery support services have been shown to cause positive changes. These services are nonclinical, flexible, and often lead by peers. They can be in-person or digital. The rise of social media has contributed to virtual spread of health behaviors, both positively and negatively. Despite the harm that can come from normalizing substance abuse, social media can also offer support and inspire hope.
“Over 20 million Americans suffer from past year substance use disorder – and there are a number of efficacious treatment options – yet very few of these individuals receive any form of substance use treatment,” said study author Alex M. Russell, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Center for Public Health and Technology.
“Thus, there is a need to foster innovative means through which to engage these individuals with recovery supportive resources. Prior research in other areas has demonstrated that social media posts and exposures can influence health behavior. We were interested in exploring whether a growingly popular social media platform, like TikTok, could be an innovative means through which to study and promote health behavior change with regard to substance use disorder recovery.”
Russell and colleagues identified 20 keywords associated with substance use disorders and searched TikTok using those terms as hashtags. They limited them down to the most popular substance use hashtags: #addiction, #recovery, and #sober and utilized the 100 most liked videos on each. Next, the videos were coded into recovery-related categories. Demographic information, user sentiment toward recovery, video type, mechanisms of behavior change, and stigmatizing language were measured.
Results showed that the most common theme throughout videos was showing a journey from having a substance use disorder to being in recovery, and these videos showed a transformation. Another common theme was sharing recovery milestones, and these videos contained enthusiasm and excitement. The creators of the TikTok videos strongly identified as being in recovery and identified social support as a significant factor aiding their recovery. A large portion of videos showed people who chose new activities, such as exercise, as an alternative to use. A small portion invoked themes of spirituality and faith as tools for recovery.
“Millions of Americans are in active recovery from substance use disorders, and many of these individuals are using social media platforms, like TikTok, as a part of their recovery journeys,” Russell told PsyPost. “Whether it is meant to support their own recovery efforts or to instill hope in others who are struggling, these individuals are making millions of impressions on audiences who may be contemplating their own substance use.”
This study aimed to understand the types of substance use recovery TikTok videos. It is an important first step, but more research is necessary to understand how this content could affect people who are struggling with substance abuse. Additionally, this study limited its content to TikTok videos in a constrained time frame (January 2020-January 2021) and would not include any substance use related videos that didn’t utilize at least one of the three chosen hashtags.
“While we were able to start to characterize online communication about substance use disorder recovery on TikTok in this study, we don’t know much about the effects of being exposed to this type of content,” Russell explained. “As we state in the paper, ‘More research is needed to better understand whether digital recovery narratives facilitated via TikTok can effectively serve to normalize experiences of addiction and help-seeking behaviors in order to reduce stigmatizing attitudes toward individuals with SUD and increase willingness to seek evidence-based SUD treatment.'”
The study, “Using TikTok in recovery from substance use disorder“, was authored by Alex M. Russell, Brandon G. Bergman, Jason B. Colditz, John F. Kelly, Plangkat J. Milaham, and Philip M. Massey.