TikTok is failing to curb the promotion and sale of dangerous steroid-like drugs marketed to minors by bodybuilding influencers, according to a new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
“Ultimately, this is a story of TikTok’s complete failure to manage its platform and enforce its rules. There is an urgent need for action,” Imran Ahmed, CEO and founder of CCDH, wrote in the report. “TikTok needs to start enforcing its own rules that prohibit the promotion and sale of potentially dangerous drugs for profit – and it needs to be much more transparent about how many children and young people are routinely exposed to this content via the platform’s algorithms. “
CCDH researchers examined a series of hashtags that promote the use of “steroid-like drugs,” an umbrella term for anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), peptides and selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs). All three drug classes are banned; Selling AAS without a prescription is illegal in the United States, while selling peptides and SARMS as unapproved drugs for human consumption is illegal. According to the CCDH report, these drugs violate TikTok’s own safety policies, which “prohibit the promotion and sale of regulated substances.”
The new report, titled “TikTok’s Toxic Trade,” examines videos with hashtags promoting the use of these drugs and finds that they were viewed up to 587 million times by U.S. users in the last three years, including up to 420 million views from US users under 24.
According to Callum Hood, a senior researcher at CCDH, TikTok does not provide data on how many times a video was viewed by users under 18, so they could not estimate how many videos were viewed by younger teenagers. According to a published Pew Research survey, one in six American teenagers uses the app “almost constantly.” last yearand the minimum age to create a TikTok account is 13 years.
Many of the videos identified by the CCDH tout the so-called benefits of steroid-like drugs and promise that they will help users build muscle, grow taller and enlarge their penis.
In fact, these drugs are known to have dangerous side effects, including, among other things, an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, increased aggressiveness, sexual dysfunction and testicular shrinkage, according to the US Food and Drug Administration
In 2018, an 18-year-old Irishman, Luke O’Brien, was died after taking the anabolic steroid Stanozolol to improve performance in school sports. The drug had caused fatal swelling of his brain. And there are serious dangers that adult bodybuilders face as well physical side effects from steroids and steroid-like drugs, including enlarged hearts, loss of fertility, cognitive changes and, in some cases, death.
The CCDH found that many of the videos downplayed the risks associated with these drugs and gave advice clearly aimed at teenagers, including how to hide drug use from parents.
“Just tell your parents it’s vitamins,” one user wrote.
One user, @bennythelifter, specifically encouraged teens to purchase SARMS from European company Biaxol Supplements via a 10 percent discount link in his bio.
“Teenagers lied about their age just to fight in World War II,” he wrote in a video caption, “but you are too scared to take S4RMs.”
“If you look at how this stuff is marketed, the marketing is all positive,” Hood said of TikTok influencers’ claims about the drugs. “There are no risks, or the risks are minimal and it is a link to a shady website that gives you a 10% discount.” There is no guarantee that you will get what you were promised. There is no guarantee that the advice you receive is accurate and people go into it blindly, not knowing what they are getting into and not knowing what they are buying.”
The new CCDH report identifies 35 specific influencers who profit from the sale of these banned drugs by collaborating with drug manufacturers to offer discount codes. Researchers found that these accounts alone had nearly 1.8 million followers, allowing drug sellers to dramatically increase their audience.
One such account, @Teach_me_roids, offers advice specifically for teenagers (using hashtags like #teenfitness and #teenbodybuilding), saying that they can increase their height and penis size if they self-medicate during puberty. The account also features a video tutorial on “home-brewing” anabolic-androgenic steroids using amateur laboratory equipment, as well as links to purchase the raw materials.
Websites like those linked to by @Teach_me_roids often attempt to circumvent the law by labeling the drugs they sell as “research chemicals” that are not suitable for human consumption. That wasn’t good enough for the FDA to do it sanctioned companies for selling banned products with this disclaimer and told a company earlier this year that it was clear that their “products are intended as medicinal products for human use.”
The CCDH is calling on TikTok to “enforce its own rules prohibiting the promotion of drugs,” including removing content that promotes steroid-like drugs, penalizing users who repeatedly violate the rules, and removing the links in User bios offering discount codes for drug sites. They are also calling for more transparency about the number of users under 18 who view this content.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a TikTok spokesperson expressed doubts about the CCDH’s methodology and findings.
“This report, like CCDH’s previous ones, does not distinguish between positive content (e.g. recovery, support) and negative content,” a TikTok spokesperson said. “For example, the hashtag ‘steroid’ could contain any number of videos about steroids that do not depict or promote their use.”
“Any content that instructs, sells, or depicts the use of Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs) violates our Community Guidelines and will be removed if discovered,” they said.