Can TikTok educate young people on drug safety? A dive into #seshtok and what harm reduction looks like on social media.

By Julia Fraczak

The use of social media platforms, in this instance TikTok, is a useful alternative to traditional education on drug use and harm reduction. It provides a fresh, contemporary take on drug education, reducing stigma and shame, making learning fun and easy, and most importantly, being accessible to any young person wanting to learn about drug use harm reduction.

The social media app TikTok has had a large impact on young people since its launch in 2016. I asked myself: what kind of impact does the app have on those seeking harm reduction advice? Is it informative? Do platforms like TikTok promote safer drug use or provoke unsafe practices? So many of us use TikTok daily, but not everyone will come across videos on harm reduction or drug safety. My own TikTok algorithm does not present videos on harm reduction on my feed, even though I have been researching harm reduction on the internet for the past few months. It is important to realise that with so many creators and content under any single hashtag, it is so easy to stumble upon both positive and negative videos; this includes those on harm reduction. 

Currently, TikTok demographics show that 25% of users are between the ages of 10 and 19, with the platform reaching its peak in 2019-2020 based on download numbers. The focus of the app steers towards ‘infotainment’, its mission statement being ‘to inspire creativity and bring joy’. In 2020/2021 young people’s substance misuse treatment report, it was found that 11,013 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had contact with drug and alcohol services. Moreover, 73% of young people were reported to have had their first encounter with drugs at 15 years old. Considering these statistics, it seems important for young people to be educated about drugs early and directly, and social media has a part to play in that education. Young people are more likely to access and retain information from social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, rather than televised news, internet adverts, and school workshops. Why? Because social media content is tailored and targeted for young people from the get-go. 

To gain a better insight into the social media world I thought, what better way than to go directly to the people who feed it? THE CREATORS! Upon my deep dive on social media, I discovered many creators who aim to spread awareness about unsafe drugs and those who try to help by informing people of current drug news and keeping people safe. I wanted to understand what impact TikTok is to have on young people who want to learn and conduct safer drug use. I contacted creators from The News Movement and Test your Poison. 

Clodagh Griffin (@clogrifff), a ‘The News Movement’ journalist (a TikTok news platform) helps inform her audience about all things lifestyle, whether that be about TV awards news or drug testing kits. Her content mainly involves discussing current drug news and providing information on drug safety. Her platform amasses, on average, tens of thousands of views and likes (with the highest being 1.5 million). She expressed to me that she wants her platform to be ‘’valuable to people of all ages’’ with her audience demographics being primarily 18-25 years old. Her page promotes harm reduction information about new pills, dangerous batches of drugs in circulation such as new batches of Ketamine, and most popularly drug checking. 

I also managed to get in touch with creators from Test Your Poison- @testyourpoison (Canada based). Just like Clodagh’s platform, they focus on drug use safety. Their audience is primarily made up of 18–34-year-olds (75%) and is composed of ‘’festival-goers’’ and individuals who ‘’don’t have the luxury to research or source out clean supplies’’. Their platform, however, is for anyone who needs it and anyone who wants to learn about safer drug use. They not only give information to users but also offer various drug testing kits for many drugs, including LSD test kits, cocaine test kits, and multi-party sets of 10 test strips, promoting these on their TikTok. Sometimes, drug users may want to ask for help and buy test kits but find it challenging reaching out in person for test kits at festivals; shame and fear playing a big role as to why. Through having a link in their account bio and shipping internationally, Test Your Poison offers the viewer an easier, discreet way to gain access to said kits, while their videos give all the information necessary for users to make an informed decision. It is important to note that the drug market in Canada varies to the one in the UK, and so the harm reduction strategies promoted will be tailored to Canadian youth. For example, Canada battles with an overdose crisis, with apparent opioid toxicity deaths in Canada having risen by 158% between 2016 and 2021. In this case, Test Your Poison will adapt their content to educate about opioid, such as OxyContin, overdose. 

Though they do well in terms of popularity, both pages are met with some snarky negative comments here and there. Clodagh, for example, is usually met with the ‘’just don’t do drugs’’ response in her comments. She deals with these comments well. ‘’I can take that!’’, she says, while continuing with her commitment to educate users. She understands that ‘’people will always take drugs no matter what’’ and so she prefers for people to be ‘’up to date with potential dangers and info’’ rather than being completely clueless.

Both creator platforms release easy to watch videos, with engaging content and attractive aesthetics for young people. The short length of videos, vivid background visuals, and easy to digest information makes both pages attractive to young users. Test Your Poison specify that their videos ‘’incorporate Gen Z humour and TikTok trends’’ to reach a particular audience. Furthermore, their page encourages the engagement of the largest demographic group of the TikTok audience. Through the above components in harm reduction videos, users can watch multiple videos in a short amount of time, while easily retaining information and educating themselves without actively searching the internet for help. I believe this is a great strategy for young users to learn about harm reduction. In fact, studies showcase that there is a positive link between the engagement and creativity of higher education students and the utilisation of social media by those students. In turn, this could also apply to social media as a great tool for teaching harm reduction.    

There are a multitude of wonderful creators on TikTok and other social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter whose main aims are to help those who find it hard to reach out first, whether that be due to fears of stigma or fear of law enforcement. In my eyes, #Seshtok, #safesesh, #harmreduction, #safedrugs, are vital sources of information for party drug users who want to learn more about harm reduction. Moreover, with charities and foundations often linked or tagged within videos, users have direct access to other sources for help, drug testing kits, and contacts to professionals. TikTok has allowed for the creation of many new platforms and accounts that can spread awareness and promote harm reduction. Harm reduction services can cover more ground by using TikTok to reach users. With the limited access to formal harm reduction education at schools and universities, other resources such as TikTok are important vessels for educating young people.

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