In a new report, a social media watchdog group details how steroid content is exploding in some TikTok communities, promoting potentially dangerous and often illegal substances while propagating unattainable body image ideals to boys and young men.
Researchers with the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that videos tagged with hashtags promoting the use of steroid-like drugs have racked up more than 580 million views among U.S. users in the last three years, the bulk of which come from young men between the ages of 18 and 24. Data for views from under-18 users isn’t available.
“Young women and girls aren’t the only group of young people who are being exposed to potentially damaging and dangerous content online,” CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed said.
“A growing – and chronically understudied – crisis is being fomented among young boys and men, wrapped in toxic ideas of masculinity, strength, and misogyny, and amplified by unaccountable algorithms.”
The CCDH groups the substances in question together under the umbrella of “steroid-like drugs” rather than calling them “performance-enhancing drugs” — a term that can be misleading, given the health risks associated with their use. Drugs examined in the report include anabolic-androgenic steroids, peptides and Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs).
In April, the FDA issued a warning about the use of steroid-like drugs among teens and young adults, citing the impact of social media influencers. In the FDA’s warning, the agency noted a rash of adverse event reports that linked SARMs in particular to increased heart attack risk, infertility and psychosis.
“Targeting teenagers and young adults, videos on social media platforms tout SARMs as a quick or easy way to improve physical appearance, gain muscle mass, or increase athletic performance,” the FDA wrote. “The reality is SARMs are potentially dangerous.”
In the U.S., anabolic-androgenic steroids require a prescription while peptides and SARMs are illegal when sold as dietary supplements. According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, “there are no [FDA]-approved SARMs currently available for prescription. All SARMs are investigational drugs.” In spite of restrictions and dangers associated with their use, the substances are regularly sold as “research chemicals” that aren’t approved by regulatory agencies and aren’t for human consumption, in spite of clearly encouraging buyers to ingest them.
That loophole might not fool the FDA. The agency has written warning letters to companies selling SARMs that attempt to leverage that loophole, prompting criminal charges in some instances.
While the vendors selling these drugs generally don’t target underage users directly according to the report, they increasingly rely on social media influencers on apps like TikTok to promote their products through affiliate marketing. The CCDH found 35 influencers on TikTok with ties to websites that sell illegal steroid-like drugs. Together, that set of accounts commands a TikTok following of 1.8 million users, which they leverage to push affiliate links and discount codes, earning hefty commissions on sales.
“The accounts all belong to users who post videos displaying their physiques or techniques for gaining muscle,” the report states. “Many openly documented their own experiences with SLDs or uploaded videos in an educational style that highlighted supposed benefits of SLDs, often ignoring or downplaying the health risks.”
Across example videos, TikTok users shared gym and workout videos encouraging their followers to use steroid-like drugs. Some of these targeted under-18 users directly with captions like “teenagers lied about their age just to fight in WW2 but you are too scared to take S4RMs [SARMs]” and “Just tell your parents they’re vitamins.” Researchers also found videos from users who identified themselves as under the age of 18 who promoted the use of steroid-like drugs in their bodybuilding routines.
One bodybuilding influencer identified in the report explicitly tailors his content to teenage users and his 40,700 followers using hashtags like #teenbodybuilding and #teenfitness. The account veers deeply into dangerous pseudo-science, encouraging teens to start using steroids early in order to boost their height and genital size.
“Ultimately, this is a story of TikTok’s stark failure to govern their own platform and enforce their rules,” Ahmed said. “…TikTok must start enforcing its own rules prohibiting the promotion and sale of potentially dangerous drugs for profit — and it needs to be much more transparent about how many children and teenagers are routinely exposed to this content through the platform’s algorithms.”