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Teens and young adults who use TikTok for sexual education may be vulnerable to misinformation. This is according to an article co-authored by Leah Fowler, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Houston Law Centre’s Health Law & Policy Institute.

“Sex Education on TikTok: A Content Analysis of Themes” was published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Health Promotion Practice. Fowler’s co-authors included Stephanie Morain, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins College; Hadley Stevens Smith, health policy fellow at Baylor College of Medicine; and Lauren Schoen, former research coordinator at Baylor College of Medicine and doctoral student at the College of Texas School of Law.

TikTok is a video-based social media platform that offers short videos. It was first released in September 2016 and has reached more than 1 billion active users worldwide, the company said in a statement released in September.

“TikTok is a popular social media platform among adolescents,” the article stated. “For some, it also serves as a source of sex education, with videos potentially reaching millions of viewers in the United States and billions of viewers worldwide. This ecosystem exists largely outside the view of parents, health care providers, and educators and may be providing a separate sex education curriculum from that taught in homes, doctor’s offices, and schools. The vast majority of videos are user-generated content, with a small subset produced by private or public entities, like a company marketing a product.”

“As a result, not all videos provide factual information. While TikTok’s Community Guidelines and Terms of Service currently seem to anticipate the creation of educational videos about the human body, the app does not regulate or oversee the content or provide disclaimers about misinformation or unverified claims beyond prohibiting and moderating the production of pornographic or otherwise inappropriate content.”

The study discusses the limited scope of sex education traditionally taught in schools, homes, or community and religious centers. The study suggests that stakeholders such as parents, physicians, and educators should proactively initiate conversations about sexual health issues, providing factual information.

“While teens benefit from a private space to explore these themes, passive video consumption does not provide avenues to ask questions or seek additional information from a trusted resource,” the article said. “While some obstetricians, gynecologists, and other health care professionals have actively engaged in TikTok as popular content creators, providing science-based content, answering questions posed by other users, and responding to incorrect viral videos, the ever-growing quantity of content available on TikTok makes responding to all misinformation impractical, and there is no guarantee a user will ever encounter these corrective videos.”

Fowler is a 2014 graduate of the UH Law Center and joined the faculty in 2018. She received the 2021 Center Service Award from the Center for Medical Ethics & Health Policy from the Baylor College of Medicine and the 2020 Ethel M. Baker Faculty Award from the Law Center.

Click here to read “Sex Education on TikTok: A Content Analysis of Themes.”

Click here to read “Let’s Tok About Sex,” a print commentary by the paper’s co-authors Fowler, Schoen, and Morain published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last month.