TikTok and Mental Health: A Youth Perspective

I first downloaded the TikTok app in March 2020. My college had just sent everyone home due to the pandemic, and I was dealing with extreme boredom and social isolation due to being disconnected from friends. It was not long before the app completely sucked me in. I’d spend hours scrolling through my carefully curated FYP or “for you page.” TikTok provided me with a sense of community during an isolating time. Even now, I probably spend too much time scrolling through the app for entertainment, recipe ideas, and virtually any other content you can imagine.

TikTok is a video-sharing app that has exploded in popularity in the past few years, becoming one of the most downloaded apps in the United States since the onset of COVID-19. The app makes it easy for anyone to make or view videos that are relevant to their interests. Besides the many trends that blow up on TikTok, thanks to the popular influencers who create and promote them, one can find almost anything they want – from financial advice to intricate recipes to communities for people struggling with rare diseases. The app’s algorithm enables videos to be seen by people looking for that kind of content. Now, TikTok has over one billion monthly users. The app’s influence is undeniable, so much so that other social media platforms are mimicking TikTok’s way of sharing content. For example, Instagram Reels is known for copying TikTok’s format for presenting and sharing short videos, many of which originate from TikTok.

The Benefits of TikTok

One of the benefits of TikTok is how videos can reach people. People will often reach out for support from strangers on TikTok. Just this past year, a woman shared a video about her father, who spent 14 years writing a novel originally published over ten years ago but had very few sales. Then, practically overnight, her video gained immense popularity and was viewed over 47 million times. Now her father’s novel “Stone Maidens” is in the number one spot in the thriller genre on Amazon. Another woman from Zambia uses TikTok to fund a school she created to educate, house, and feed over 150 children. She uses TikTok to raise awareness and fundraise for her cause

Another benefit of TikTok is its effect on mental health – primarily through building community. With mental health being a popular subject on TikTok, there is no shortage of mental health content. These topical videos are dubbed with names like “ADHDtok” and “depressiontok.”  Because of its algorithm, TikTok feeds people videos they will likely relate to. Because of this, many people dealing with the same mental health struggles often find a sense of community or feelings of camaraderie on the platform. In fact, because of the large amount of general health-related content available on TikTok, some health professionals are turning to TikTok as a way to share accurate information. Mental health professionals, in particular, share videos tackling topics like decreasing stigma, increasing awareness and access, and encouraging those who need it to seek professional help.

Eight to twelve-year-olds spend about five and a half hours on electronic media each day, while thirteen to eighteen-year-olds spend as much as eight and a half hours on electronic media each day.

The Problems with TikTok

Despite the benefits of TikTok and other forms of social media, some of the content it exposes young people to and the associated increase in screen time has caused concern for its impact on mental health. Media use amongst adolescents has grown at an unprecedented rate since the onset of COVID-19. Eight to twelve-year-olds spend about five and a half hours on electronic media each day, while thirteen to eighteen-year-olds spend as much as eight and a half hours on electronic media each day. In addition to TikTok, other popular platforms include Youtube, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Excess Screen Time

With virtually unlimited curated content at your fingertips, it’s easy to scroll mindlessly through TikTok videos for hours and hours. I have had such difficulty refraining from going on TikTok that I have set a screen time limit for the app on my phone. Many of my friends have done the same, and I have even watched videos on TikTok where others share their frustrations with the amount of time they spend on the app. 

A 2021 study suggests that short-video watching of personalized and enjoyable content may be a perfect recipe for addiction-like behaviors. As one continues to watch video after video of immersive, relatable content, it can be hard to shift attention away from this content. This inability to “switch off” is because the reward center of one’s brain is continuously activated when exposed to this kind of content. During adolescence, these reward centers of the brain are very active, which can make it even more difficult for teens to turn away. Research suggests these behaviors can be troublesome for brain development and may result in difficulties finishing activities that require sustained attention.

Vulnerable populations, specifically girls suffering from depression, may be more inclined to feel addicted to TikTok than girls with no depressive symptoms. Once the adolescent becomes dependent on the internet or social media, this then causes more problems like discomfort with face-to-face interactions, self-control issues, and poor academic performance. Vulnerable individuals seem to be especially impacted by the negative content on social media. Often, users of social media, especially those suffering from depression, will come across depression-related content and unfavorable social comparisons that can influence their sense of self-worth and self-image. This can lead to poor sleep, sadness, and increased stress.

Harmful and Inaccurate Content

Alongside the positive and wholesome content readily available on social media, there is no shortage of harmful, exploitative, or false information being widely consumed. It is important to remember that anyone can create content on social media platforms like TikTok, and getting around the community guideline restrictions is not hard to do.

One of the most concerning impacts of widespread TikTok use is the spread of false information. As much as 20% of videos that appear as search results for important news topics contain misinformation. These results are especially concerning as most TikTok users are adolescents and young adults who can be impressionable. It can be difficult to identify misinformation because many channels that post misinformation already have large followings and may generally sound reputable. For example, when COVID-19 was at its height, many people were promoting false and dangerous at-home “cures.” 

More and more young people are sharing videos showing their symptoms, like switching between personalities due to borderline personality disorder, for example, and sharing unfounded advice on how to self-diagnose. There are thousands of videos on TikTok with titles like “What anxiety looks like,” or “Symptoms I had that I didn’t realize were undiagnosed bipolar disorder.” The concern with the large number of videos like this is that some viewers will recognize symptoms they share and then self-diagnose themselves when, in reality, reaching a diagnosis is often a much more complex process. Additionally, TikTok and many other types of social media platforms do not closely monitor their content. There are a large number of creators who, usually unintentionally, share false and dangerous information with their highly impressionable following.

What can families do?

TikTok and other similar social media platforms can be wonderful places for adolescents to entertain themselves, learn, and find community, but these concerns are not to be ignored. 

Learn how to identify misinformation. While social media can be an easy and quick way to stay up to date with current information, it is not always reliable. It is important to check information with credible sources. Here are some helpful tips to remember:

  • Check the website URL: websites ending with .org, .gov, .net, .com, .edu tend to be the most reliable.
  • Check the author/speaker and their sources: Ask yourself who is spreading this information, and what is their credibility. Where did they get their information from?
  • Is it satire? Sometimes, websites or video creators make elaborate jokes. For example, websites like The Onion create satirical news reports. If something seems ridiculous, you should double-check the information.
  • Websites like Factcheck.org and Common Sense Media give more advice on finding reliable information.

Set screen time limits. To avoid spending too much time on TikTok or other social media platforms, teens or their parents can set up screen time limits on their phones.

  • Apple Products: If one has an iPhone or other Apple product, under Settings, they can find a tab called “Screen Time.” Within this, one can set a screen time passcode, or have a family member or friend set for them.
  • Android: If one has an Android device, under Settings, they can find a tab titled “Digital Wellbeing and Parental Controls.” Then, click on the chart, select the app you want to limit, and set the amount of time you want to spend on the app.

Be open to conversation. A parent may be concerned if their child comes to them to discuss something they’ve seen on TikTok, particularly if it is related to mental health. The best way to handle this is by remaining warm, loving, and open to discussing it. 

  • Talk to your child to understand why they feel the way they do and any challenges they may face.
  • Use a balanced parenting approach by providing both love and supervision.
  • Teach teens how to cope with stress and advocate for proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, and a stress management plan.
  • Recognize warning signs that your teen might be dealing with depression or anxiety. While commonly seen as sadness, depression can also present in a short temper or unusual irritability in teens. There are many more signs to keep an eye out for.
  • Role model self-care and teach your teen through action that taking time for hobbies and relaxation is vital for maintaining health and well-being.

Seek professional help, if needed. Reaching out for professional help is a sign of strength. Sometimes, teens need guidance on how to prepare to reach out for professional help.

Now that I am back at school with friends and work and responsibilities, TikTok and social media in general is a less integral part of my everyday life. However, it is still a source of entertainment, community, and information that I turn to regularly. I work to be more aware of the time I spend on social media and I continue to set limits for myself. 

This article was written by Samantha Costello. At the time this article was written, Samantha was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying cognitive science and bioethics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her primary academic interests lie in brain plasticity, human behavior, and learning.

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