COMMENT: TikTok’s life hacks are a laugh, but beware health loonies

Mopping a wall is safer than accepting online medical advice and diet recommendations

A relaxed healthy sports woman in sport clothes with laptop in VR gear meditating at modern home.

MY daughter has a new phrase. TikTok Says. It’s her first line of defence whenever her behaviour is challenged. Whatever the question, the answer remains the same.

“Why are you wearing sunscreen inside your bedroom with the curtains closed?”

“Well, TikTok says...”

“Why are you wearing a glittery cowgirl’s hat with denim shorts?

“Well, TikTok says...”

“Why are you stroking, scratching and tapping things and talking about ‘brain tingles’?”

“Well, TikTok says...”

And she’ll go on to present a watertight defence for her actions before pulling out her star witness: a TikTok influencer who insists it’s perfectly fine to shove garlic up both nostrils.

TikTok has become an all-in-one platform for lifestyle, food and health services, it seems, with teenagers claiming that cloves of garlic, pushed up the hooter, is a reliable way to clear congested airways. (It isn’t. There’s no decent medical evidence for this. Please don’t do it.)

But If TikTok says so, then it must be so, making today’s viral health hacks a warped version of the public information films I watched as a kid in the UK, where the government commissioned a series of cartoons called Charley Says. Like most things in the 1970s, they were terrifying.

An angelic boy appeared on screen beside a shadowy, hulking man and said, “Charley says, don’t go with strangers, or the stranger will take you to his single-room apartment and chop you into little pieces.”

Or words to that effect anyway.

But the films had a profound impact on impressionable kids. The UK Government had commissioned these vignettes of undiluted terror, so they had to be true, surely.

Weird 'life hacks' abound on TikTok

Today, if a teenage influencer insists that the answer to better breathing is a lump of garlic up the nasal cavities, then it must be true, surely. TikTok has no shortage of health hacks” of dubious quality, effectiveness and authenticity, with hundreds of millions of views, which only encourages the lunatic fringe.

In response, Yahoo Canada has a section devoted to challenging such claims, called TikTok Debunked. Even the headlines read like satire ...

TikTok Debunked: What is 'belly button oiling' and can it boost fertility?

TikTok Debunked: Is toilet water safe to drink?

TikTok Debunked: Are magic erasers a safe way to whiten teeth?

TikTok Debunked: Is compost an effective face pack?

Only two of those are made up. The belly button oiling and the magic erasers are genuine headlines. At this point, though, if the two headlines were merged would they sound any weirder? Does rubbing magic erasers on the belly button boost fertility? Can the fluff in our belly buttons be used to whiten teeth? Who can tell the difference?

Perhaps it’s the more plausible health tips, relatively speaking, that are the most problematic. Their vague sense of logic only makes them more insidious to those not prepared, willing or able to do the appropriate checks first.

Take the popular “egg diet”. Its TikTok search has had almost 200 million views because the promise is an enticing one. Lose 10kg in 10 days. With eggs. With everything. Eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s the Monty Python spam sketch for the social media generation, only instead of laughing at the conformity of an average café menu, they’re going after more eggs than the Easter Bunny.

My father tried something similar in the 1970s. He saw Rocky Balboa swallow half a dozen raw eggs in the movie, looked down at his skinny frame and thought, “that’s the very diet for me!” Months later, he still had his skinny frame, but he had impressively increased his chances of contracting salmonella.

As for the TikTok “egg diet” claims, a dietician pointed out it was just the latest example of a “mono diet”, which missed out on other essential nutrients – like fibre – and emphasised, again, that a single perfect food doesn’t exist.

Obviously, these dodgy diet clips are a concern when nearly six in 10 teenagers count themselves as daily TikTok users, according to a 2022 Guardian report. In the same year, analysts for NewsGuard found that almost 20 per cent of the videos presented as TikTok’s search results contained misinformation.

Crossing the line of proper health benefits

Of course, the platform isn’t always an Orwellian doom loop of wilful misinformation and unqualified quacks claiming that eye drops are the ideal acne concealer (yep, that’s another one). Sharing ‘how-to’ videos can create a communal sense of trial and error for those life hacks on show, as long as they are relatively harmless.

Carolina McCauley, for instance, created a video to show the benefits of “wall mopping”. Her demonstration has enjoyed more than 1.5 million views and triggered a TikTok search for “wall mopping” that has had – wait for this – more than 665 million views.

How dirty are these people’s walls?

Still, the viral video is a positive example of a lifestyle hack that can be shared, tested and discussed in a relatively safe space without serious consequences (but I wouldn’t be letting the cleaners loose at Singapore’s National Gallery).

But there’s a line. And it’s crossed when TikTok users pose as doctors from the Institute of Mental Health to post fake, idiotic comments about diagnoses, appointments and prescriptions, according to a recent Straits Times report. The pranksters assume this is funny.

Look, I know I wrote a column last week about the mental health benefits of humour, but this is about as funny as a migraine.

And then there’s the need for prominent toxicology physicians to come forward to debunk the recent viral claim on TikTok that borax can be used to “detoxify” the body. Borax is found in laundry detergent. A different formulation of the same compound - boron - is used to kill ants and cockroaches.

TikTokers have suggested we take a soak in this stuff.

Suddenly, a few raw eggs, some garlic up the nose and a leisurely mopping of all vertical surfaces seems like a sensible Sunday afternoon.

Benign life hacks can be an engaging exercise for social media users of all ages, but I wouldn’t trust my father with an “egg diet” because he’s seen all the Rocky movies any more than I would an influencer because she’s got a few TikTok followers.

I’d rather leave the health tips to the health experts. TikTok is useful for a decent wall-mopping technique, but not for any medical advice that’s completely off the wall.

TikTok is useful for a decent wall-mopping technique, but not for any medical advice that’s completely off the wall.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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