How TikTok is encouraging 'sober curiosity'

At 1.8 billion views, the #sober hashtag is a valuable resource for non-drinkers and those intrigued by sobriety's benefits on mental well-being.

by Alice Crossley
22 October 2021, 1:37pm

In early 2020, Abi Feltham’s mental health had reached breaking point. The 33-year-old had moved to Canada following a breakup and started abusing drugs to medicate her depression. Not long after, she attempted suicide, endured a three-day stay in a psych ward and lost her job for getting drunk at work.

Then, the pandemic struck and Abi was forced to move home to live with her mum in the UK. She continued to drink, knowing she was an alcoholic. Until one day, “I realised that I didn't want to die and instead wanted to fight for my life,” she says. From that point onwards Abi decided to quit drugs and alcohol.

At first, she tried Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but Covid-19 meant the meetings were on Zoom and she found them awkward and intense. Instead, she turned to an unlikely resource: TikTok, searching for sobriety content and finding it in abundance: the hashtag #sober has 1.8 billion views. “I find it therapeutic to share and listen to other people’s experiences, like in AA,” she says, “but TikTok feels a lot more on my terms.”

And it wasn’t long until she joined in herself, sharing raw and honest videos about her own journey on the platform. The videos quickly resonated with viewers. Since her first post about her sobriety in March 2021, Abi has amassed thousands of followers and millions of views, building a growing community of others interested in sobriety in the process. Her most viewed video at present discusses the experience of being unable to regulate the amount and speed at which she used to drink.

Craig Graham, a 24-year-old from Glasgow, is one of many inspired by Abi’s videos. He discovered her account and “soberTok” when his FYP started recommending these videos to him at just the right time; Craig was just starting his sobriety journey from crystal meth and beginning to question his relationship with alcohol. “Being an addict can make you feel like you don’t belong and that no one can understand you,” he says, “it helps so much to be able to see yourself in someone else — the videos on TikTok remind me why I’m trying to get sober.”

“There is a long history of people coming together online for mutual support,” says Professor Zeena Feldman, a Senior Lecturer in Digital Culture at King's College London. Where TikTok stands out is “the power and efficacy of its algorithm,” she adds, “it’s really effective in showing you things to keep you engaged.” This makes TikTok the perfect online space for communities to form, helping people like Craig and Abi to find sobriety content without even looking for it.

The demographic of TikTok’s sober community is hugely diverse too, raging from older people, eager to share the wisdom and experiences from decades of sobriety, to ‘sober curious’ young people, testing the waters on a new lifestyle, for a variety of reasons. It might be a twenty-something-year-old woman celebrating her first month sober, a montage of celebrities who don’t drink, a teenage boy giving “5 benefits of an alcohol-free life”, or a woman outlining her favourite alcohol free drinks to stop you feeling like you’re missing out at parties. In the comments section of almost every video, you’ll find messages of encouragement, candid accounts of other people’s struggles and constant thanks to others for sharing their experiences with alcohol.

A few months ago, Nikita, a 27-year-old from London, joined that community when she realised that alcohol was harming her mental health, causing her to feel low and anxious after every night out. “British drinking culture had conditioned me to feel like I had to drink,” she says, until she stumbled across the term ‘sober curious’ and discovered a whole community of people feeling the same way on TikTok (#sobercurious has 15.6 million views on the app). “I’m at an age where going out and getting drunk every other weekend is considered very normal,” she says, “sober TikTok helped me realise that there were lots of other people my age who were in the same boat as me.” She has since attended weddings, birthday parties and other events completely sober. “If I have a bit of a wobble before a night out where I know everyone else is going to be getting drunk, watching a few sober TikToks helps me feel more confident in my decision,” she says.

Blacking out on nights out and not coming home for 24-hour periods meant 25-year-old Lois North’s relationship with alcohol was threatening her friendships, family relationships and her job. But it wasn’t until soberTok found its way onto her FYP and she discovered Millie Gooch, founder of the Sober Girl Society, that she was able to stop drinking. “I came across Millie’s account and saw someone who was a similar age to me… I realised I was an alcoholic,” Lois says. “I needed to go sober, not just for everyone around me, but for myself.” She has recently celebrated 100 days of sobriety.

“Younger people are used to going online as their first port of call,” says Professor Feldman, but the rise of soberTok also fits into the growing popularity of remote therapy services, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. “People are increasingly turning to digital technology to get help in ways they might have previously sought in person, for example; AA or therapy,” she says.

According to DrinkAware, 52% of the UK adult population drink at least once a week; and certainly it can be hard to question your relationship with alcohol in a culture where drinking is so integral. Whilst the negative effects of social media are well documented, online spaces like soberTok offer a non judgemental space for young people to question their relationship with alcohol through exposure to a myriad of views on the topic. This is why, Professor Feldman explains, “it is impossible to say whether TikTok is good for humanity or bad for humanity — it always depends who is using it and how they are using it.”

Lois perhaps puts it best. “The content I see on TikTok makes me feel like I’m not alone and that I can stick to being sober. I never thought I’d stop drinking, but saying out loud that you are sober is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.”

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