Cannabis use is widespread and becoming more normalized as it becomes legalized in more areas around the world. Another method cannabis use is becoming normalized is through social media platforms such as TikTok. New research published in Drug and Alcohol Review that analyzed popular cannabis-related videos on TikTok found that the most popular videos overall depict cannabis use positively.
“Social media is a big part of the modern world, with adolescents reporting that they spend an average of 8 hours online every day,” said study author Brienna Rutherford (@Brie_Rutherford), a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. “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.”
TikTok, a short-form video sharing app, is one of the most popular social media apps among adolescents in many countries. So, the researchers were interested in examining the prevalence, viewership, and types of cannabis-related content on TikTok.
Researchers sampled videos on TikTok by searching relevant hashtags (i.e., #weed) that had more than 100 million views to ensure they were collecting the most viewed content. This search supplied a final sample of 881 videos from 9 of the most popular cannabis-related hashtags.
Researchers created a coding scheme to identify themes of these videos. They identified seven key themes present throughout the videos: Humour/Entertainment (71.7%), Experiences (42.9%), Lifestyle Acceptability (24.6%), 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,” reflected the researchers. “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).”
Many of the most viewed videos portrayed cannabis positively (417 million views). Neutral depictions of cannabis use were viewed less frequently (331 million), and negative depictions were viewed the least (28 million). Most of the subjects in the videos were male, Caucasian, and between the age of 25 and 50. Of the whole sample, only 50 videos depicted active cannabis use (i.e., the subjects smoking, vaping, or consuming edibles).
Overall, researchers identified seven common themes present in the most popular cannabis-related content on TikTok. These themes are like those found in analyses of other social media sites. Cannabis addiction or dependence was only referenced in a small portion of the sample. This could be because the perceived risk of cannabis among adolescents is low.
“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. 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.”
The researchers cite some limitations to this work namely the restriction of the hashtags used to create the sample of videos. Perhaps they missed some hashtags that would have given their video sample more variability.
“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,” Rutherford said. “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.”
The researchers express some concern over the prevalence of positive cannabis-related content on TikTok. They suggest the app offer a banner feature to warn viewers of the content as is done with physical violence or factually 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).
The study, “Getting high for likes: Exploring cannabis-related content on TikTok“, was authored by Brienna N. Rutherford, Tianze Sun, Benjamin Johnson, Steven Co, Tong Liang Lim, Carmen C. W. Lim, Vivian Chiu, Janni Leung, Daniel Stjepanovic, Jason P. Connor, and Gary C. K. Chan.