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TikTok: Helpful or Harmful? The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

What happens when mental illness becomes an internet trend?

Content Warning: This article discusses topics of mental health which might be distressing to some readers
image of a phone showing TikTok on the screen
by Collabstr | @Unsplash

With all the recent conversation around TikTok possibly being banned in many countries, the potential danger of this app is being questioned. Whilst this conversation is mainly focused on the worry surrounding the potential endangerment of sensitive user data, I think the endangerment of the public’s mental health is equally as important in this debate.

The Pros

Since TikTok’s explosion in popularity in 2019, where it was downloaded 693 million times and then 850 million times in the following year, it has continued growing to become the most popular platform for short form video content. It allows creators to share information in a brief and digestible way and creators from all walks of life use this medium to make their content.

Therapists are no exception; using TikTok to give therapeutic advice and share techniques, discuss mental illness symptoms and provide reassurance. Since therapy and other mental health services aren’t always readily accessible to everyone, this kind of content has a positive impact by enabling people to understand their symptoms, potentially self-diagnose and find a safe community online where they can seek help they might not be able to get otherwise.

One of my favourite therapists on TikTok is TherapyJeff, whose content mainly focuses on relationship pressures and anxieties but also explores self-care and promotes understanding your own needs and boundaries. He makes an important disclaimer acknowledging that

and he encourages users to use their critical thinking skills when consuming content online. I think this kind of responsible uploading is essential when it comes to mental health content and it is important that users seek professional help if they are concerned about their well-being.

The Cons

However, mental health content on TikTok can become dangerous territory. While there are many professional therapists using the platform for good, there are also a lot of inexperienced users spreading misinformation about mental illness and symptoms online. Since this kind of content gets views and likes, mental illness is being exploited and romanticized by users for the sake of going viral. Mental illness has become a trend.

For example, we see tags such as the ‘sad girl’ aesthetic with music by Lana del Rey or Mitski that often accompany such videos (beware: TikTok says you might be a ‘sad girl’ if you listen to these artists!). This is just one blatant romanticisation of depression on TikTok. Plus, tags like dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorder are being used more and more often and the symptoms of these disorders are hugely generalised. Creators make symptoms as general as possible as the more people that they can get to relate, the more likes they get.

This is especially dangerous considering most of TikTok’s users are between 15 and 25 years old, making up 24% of users in the UK in 2020. The lower end of this age range is particularly impressionable and are more likely to self-diagnose or be influenced by these videos.

The trend of mental illness content on TikTok also leads to people faking disorders for views and attention online. This is not to say that all mentally ill people are lying about their diagnosis, but the youth are especially more susceptible to believing that they have these disorders because of how generalised and surface level the conversation around mental health is on this platform.

So, Should TikTok Be Banned?

Whilst TikTok provides a platform where people can easily access professional therapeutic advice, there are also huge volumes of harmful misinformation being spread on the platform which makes it difficult to access genuine and helpful content. Not only is this damaging conversations around mental health online, but it is also actively harming the mental health of users and the communities that these videos are targeted towards.

I can’t see TikTok being banned anytime soon due to its popularity, and I do think that the short form video medium is an effective and creative way to get information across to an audience. However, I think that when it comes to discussing mental health on the platform, people need to develop some digital literacy skills and learn to use online spaces safely and responsibly, not just effectively. Creators should think more responsibly before uploading potentially untrue, dangerous or triggering content and users should be aware of the potentially dangerous nature of this content.

Ultimately, there are better, more trustworthy services and resources for mental health advice online. For example, Recovery College is a great NHS led online resource for people who might not be able to access therapy but are seeking to improve their mental wellbeing or further understand their symptoms.

It is important to remember that social media is not therapy and is not always a reliable source of information, always seek help if you are struggling. Even if you don't have access to a professional therapist; speak to a friend, reach out to a family member, talk to someone at university. There is always someone who will listen.


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