TikTok Videos About Pap Smears Could Encourage More Women to Get Screened for Cervical Cancer


Videos on the social media platform where doctors used supportive language were found to improve attitudes towards Pap smears the most, a new study found.

TikTok videos that inform women about Pap smears and encourage them to get tested regularly could be an effective communication tool for health care professionals, according to recent data published in Health Communication.1

Cervical cancer deaths have decreased significantly in the last several decades, but around 4000 women still die every year in the United States due to the disease.2 Pap smears, which are used to screen for cervical cancer, can reduce disease burden by detecting the cancer earlier.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the number of women getting screened for cervical cancer has decreased in recent years. While the department has a target rate of 79.2%, only 73.9% of women received a Pap smear in 2021.3

Investigators from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri conducted a study to test the effects of 2 message features that are commonly found in short-form TikTok videos about Pap smears.

“With TikTok, there have been a lot of news reports about how people, especially Gen Z, are using the platform as a source for health information,” Ciera Kirkpatrick, lead author on the study, said in a release.4 “[My co-author and I] noticed that there was a lot of health messaging regarding pap smears, which are a really important preventative measure for cervical cancer.”

The study included 636 women aged 21 to 29 who viewed TikTok videos about Pap smears from either a doctor or peer. The short-form videos used either controlling language that demanded viewers get a Pap smear or language that was supportive of the individuals decision to get a Pap smear or not.

The participants then responded to the videos with outcome measures that included perceived source credibility, perceived message effectiveness, attitude about the message, attitude toward Pap smears, intention to engage with the videos, and intention to get a Pap smear.

Investigators found that videos with doctors were perceived as both more credible and more effective than videos with peers. Videos where doctors used supportive language were found to improve attitudes towards Pap smears the most. Additionally, videos with supportive language increased intention to engage with the content the most, regardless of the source.

“While autonomy support didn’t have a direct effect on their behavioral intention to get a pap smear, it helped with the engagement factor, which could lead more people to being exposed to the message,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s important because the literature on pap smear rates has shown that one of the key reasons why women aren’t getting pap smears is because they simply don’t know that it’s something they should be doing. Getting that information in front of more people through engagement with a video can help overcome that barrier.”

1. Kirkpatrick CE, Lawrie LL.Can Videos on TikTok Improve Pap Smear Attitudes and Intentions? Effects of Source and Autonomy Support in Short-Form Health Videos. Health Communication, DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2023.2254962
2. Kitchen FL, Cox CM. Papanicolaou Smear. Report. StatPearls. October 17, 2022. Accessed October 12, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470165/
3. Increase the proportion of females who get screened for cervical cancer—C‑09. Report. US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed October 12, 2023. https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/browse-objectives/cancer/increase-proportion-females-who-get-screened-cervical-cancer-c-09
4. Gayman D. Study highlights use of TikTok to encourage cervical cancer screening. News Report. Nebraska Today. October 5, 2023. Accessed October 12, 2023. https://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/today/article/study-highlights-use-of-tiktok-to-encourage-cervical-cancer-screening/
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