COMMENTARY

Social Distancing via TikTok: Using Humor and Facts to Educate During COVID-19

Rose Marie S. Leslie, MD

Disclosures

April 16, 2020

As doctors spend hours upon hours treating patients and the rest of the world spends their time behind closed doors, it's hard to engage with one another. Social distancing has left many people feeling isolated and searching for answers about COVID-19.

One avenue I've found helpful, in both engaging with others and providing answers (as well as busting myths), is social media, particularly the TikTok app.

TikTok, launched in 2017, is a social media platform that has been downloaded over a billion times. Catering to teens and young adults, users make 15- to 60-second videos, often set to trending music or popular sound clips. The app is set up in a way that allows videos to go viral frequently. Often, millions of views can occur over just 24 hours.

When scrolling through TikTok, you are almost guaranteed to stumble across a medical video, especially these days during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the app, you might see registered nurses teaching proper handwashing while singing a popular song or a physician dancing while educating on social distancing. The spirit of the app is to create content that is creative, fun, and interesting.

The potential of TikTok as a public health tool is also being recognized by major health and news organizations. The World Health Organization and the Washington Post are using the platform to educate and inform about COVID-19.

But TikTok isn't without controversy in how medical professionals are using the platform.

So how does this translate to medical professionals on TikTok? How do we convey important and sobering public health information on the app while also entertaining the audience—often our patients or prospective patients? And how do we do this now, amid COVID-19, when such a serious pandemic is causing stress among us all, including doctors?

My TikTok Journey

I downloaded the TikTok app in May 2019. I spent a few weeks scrolling through silly clips of kids making dances inspired by math equations, a young mom giving tips on couponing, and a college student drawing cartoon characters. The content was fun, silly, and often educational. I absolutely loved it.

However, I was surprised by the lack of health-related content. Inspired by my 6 years of work in health education before medical school and interest in health advocacy, I decided to create the educational content I felt was missing. I focused on content that I thought was relevant to the young demographic using the app: such topics as intrauterine devices, vaping, LGBTQ health, and basic anatomy.

The response was bigger than I would have ever expected.

My TikTok videos quickly garnered millions of views and resulted in lots of media coverage in the United States and other countries. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I realized that the platform was going to be a critical tool for public health messaging.

Teens Trust Physicians on Social Media

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, a concern arose that younger generations are not taking social isolation or hygiene recommendations seriously. In fact, the US Surgeon General asked social media influencers to use their platforms to engage and inform younger Americans about COVID-19.

In response, I shifted my content to focus on COVID-19 and what each individual person can do to help prevent spread of this illness. And guess what? It is definitely working. After creating a video explaining why social distancing is so important, a follower replied, "I didn't used to understand it. Thank you for taking the time to explain this!"

In response to a video on practical hygiene tips, a follower commented, "I was overwhelmed and anxious, but this made me feel a lot better." People are looking for information about COVID-19 from trusted professionals and feel comfortable learning through social media.

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