Users on TikTok are being encouraged to market unhealthy food and drink products by their manufacturers, according to research in the British Medical Journal.
By turning them into unofficial "brand ambassadors," the brands are able to reach wider audiences with their marketing.
The authors of the study, published in the open access journal BMJ Global Health, say they have shown "TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing".
According to Statista, more than 40 per cent of TikTok’s global users are between the ages of 18 to 24 and 25 per cent are between the ages of 10 to 19.
As of September 2021, TikTok had an average daily user base of around one billion people.
The app - in which users can watch or create short videos - is hugely popular with children, who are highly influenced by their food preferences, purchases, and requests, based on exposure to online marketing.
The authors of the study say the findings show a need for stronger policies to protect children from the harmful impact of this type of marketing on their diets and their health.
'Harmful impact of food marketing'
In an attempt to assess the effect of unhealthy food and drink marketing on TikTok, the researchers looked at all the content posted by the accounts of the 16 leading food and non-alcoholic drink brands as of June 2021.
User-generated content created in response to branded hashtag challenges was also assessed.
At least 539 videos had been posted across the 16 accounts from 2019 to 2021, with videos receiving an average of 63,400 views, 5,829 likes, 157 comments, and 36 shares.
Of the user-generated content instigated by the brands through hashtag challenges, total collective views for challenges ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion.
The researchers stated: "Our study has shown that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including that created by users at the instigation of brands. Given TikTok’s popularity among children, our findings support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing, including that on social networking platforms".
Although they accept the study is observational and cannot establish causality, they warn that "analysis of a sample of brand-relevant user-generated content created in response to these [hashtag challenges] showed that branded hashtag challenges are effectively turning users into, in TikTok’s words, 'unofficial brand ambassadors'".
They also found videos posted by users who "seem to have been paid," such as influencers, attracted nearly 10 times as many likes per video as those that didn’t appear to be paid for.
In a statement to Euronews Next, a spokesperson for TikTok said: "The safety of our community is a top priority, which is why we have clear Advertising Policies on what is and isn't allowed to be advertised on TikTok. Our policies explicitly state that ads for HFSS foods should not feature a specific call to purchase and should not be aimed at users aged 16 years and under".