Last week I was scrolling through TikTok after a friend sent me a video of a hedgehog taking a bath (a video experience I highly recommend). Just as I was working to pull away from the algorithm-induced vortex, another video caught my attention. A young man facing the camera was pointing to a list of symptoms as they flashed on the screen to a backdrop of compelling music. A few things about the video made me pause and watch:
- The symptoms. The video listed three including difficulty sitting still, arriving late to things, and struggling to manage big feelings like anger.
- The popularity. The video had been liked nearly half a million times and shared thousands.
- The comments. This video had over 7,000 comments (and counting) including many statements like, “well then i have it” and “omg this me.”
This content creator is of course not alone on the platform drawing attention to mental health. A simple click on his hashtags including #doihaveADHD and #mentalhealth revealed hundreds of similar videos – many listing symptoms, linking to symptom checklists, and providing support.
Welcome to mental health TikTok.
In some ways, this explosion of content is a breath of fresh air when compared to the shame and silence that so often blankets mental health issues.
A Community of Support and Stigma-Busting
It makes sense that content creators on social media platforms are tackling mental health issues. As rates of anxiety and depression continue to rise among adolescents, there is a growing need for conversation and community. It’s clear that teens are turning to digital platforms to learn more about and address their mental health concerns. A recent study analyzing over 100 TikTok videos with the hashtag #mentalhealth showed that adolescents use TikTok to share feelings of distress and frequently look to video comments for support and validation.
In some ways, this explosion of content is a breath of fresh air when compared to the shame and silence that so often blankets mental health issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, talking openly about mental health is key to combating stigma. This can be life saving. Stigma often prevents people from seeking the support that they need.
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that while TikTok creators are making viral videos, young people across the country are also having difficulty accessing the mental healthcare they need. In some ways, these creators are “filling the gap” and providing a measure of much-needed support while teens work to access care and treatment.
Social media platforms also allow young people to own their own stories and experiences. This can be healing and empowering for both the content creators and their audiences. Producing content allows youth to push back against harmful myths and stereotypes and make visible identities and experiences that are often erased in the field. This can be especially important for youth of color given that the mental health workforce does not reflect the diversity of young people living in this country.
We know that one of the ways parents contribute to mental health stigma is to brush off teens’ real concerns with comments like, “it’s just a phase” or “you are looking for attention.” We can add a comment like, “you just think that because of TikTok” to the list of minimizing statements to avoid.
But Proceed With Caution
This doesn’t mean that the explosion of mental health content on social media platforms is all roses. It is, at best, a mixed bag. Here are a few dynamics to keep in mind when navigating this new sea of mental health content:
→ Misleading information and inaccurate information. While many mental health providers are using TikTok to share clinically sound information, many influencers draw solely on personal experience. While valuable, the downside is that without formal training or clinical experience, creators may inadvertently share inaccurate or even harmful advice. Though admittedly not focused on mental health, a recent study found that roughly one in five TikTok videos on the platform contain misinformation. More research is needed, but it’s fair to say that misleading and inaccurate information is common. We also know that algorithms are not created with adolescent mental health in mind and can quickly lead to more extreme or harmful content.
→ Self-diagnosis. Some teens aren’t just using social media for connection and conversation. They are using it to self-diagnose and, sometimes, self-treat. Some content creators encourage this practice when they direct their audiences towards online quizzes or self-published books instead of towards clinical evaluation or support. Having awareness of the major symptoms for common mental health disorders is an important new literacy for a generation of kids committed to normalizing mental health. But jumping to quick conclusions or self diagnosing online can backfire or delay appropriate treatment.
→ The Barnum Effect. Even technically accurate information can be presented out of context or in vague ways that lead teens to self-diagnose based on symptoms typical of adolescence. Consider my own TikTok experience and how a typical teen might have responded to the list of symptoms. Late for things sometimes? Check. Difficulty sitting still? Check check. Difficulty managing big feelings like anger sometimes? Check check check.
It turns out this short list is applicable to a large swath of kids. And while some of them may have ADHD, many do not. Researcher Jacqueline Nesi reminds us that the “Barnum Effect” can easily come into play in these online spaces. According to Dr. Nesi, the Barnum Effect “refers to our strong tendency to believe that generic information or statements, which could apply to anyone, are specifically about us.” In other words, short online videos can be a bit like horoscopes, it’s easy for everyone to make them fit their individual experiences.
Having awareness of the major symptoms for common mental health disorders is an important new literacy for a generation of kids committed to normalizing mental health. But jumping to quick conclusions or self-diagnosing online can backfire or delay appropriate treatment.
How do we respond?
Just because TikTok is a mixed bag doesn’t mean that we write off our teens’ opinions, symptoms, or concerns. There is real value to these spaces for many young people. Plus, we know that one of the ways parents contribute to mental health stigma is to brush off teens’ real concerns with comments like, “it’s just a phase” or “you are looking for attention.” We can add a comment like, “you just think that because of TikTok” to our list of minimizing statements to avoid.
Instead, if our teen is on TikTok or other social media platforms, let’s approach this content as a starting place for a meaningful conversation about mental health and wellbeing, not the endpoint for diagnosis and treatment.
Here are some ways we can approach mental health TikTok with curiosity and care:
Get curious and ask questions:
- Which creators are you drawn to on TikTok? Why?
- Where are you learning from their content? What are your friends saying about them?
- How do you evaluate what you are seeing or hearing?
- Where else do you or could you get the information you need about signs and symptoms of mental illness? What about support?
Share strategies for evaluating accuracy and quality:
- You don’t have to have clinical qualifications to provide support, but it can help. Look at the creators’ bios for more information on their background and experience.
- If a creator doesn’t have a clinical background, are they sharing a lot of therapeutic or medical advice? Are they diagnosing people online? Are they pushing a lot quizzes or paid products or tools? These are all red flags (even for licensed content creators outside of an online therapeutic setting).
Rather than trying to decide whether things like mental health TikTok is “good or bad,” encourage your teen to pay attention to their own body and experience.
- How do you feel when you spend time here? Settled and engaged? Anxious or irritable?
- Which content creators seem to help in the long term? Which seem to make it worse? Where do you spend the most time?
- What offline practices have you learned that help you take care of your mental health?
Share alternative resources:
- Share evidence-based mental health sites that your teen can use alongside social media to answer their questions.
- Share top-rated mental health apps that support skill building and education.
- Make sure your teen knows the name and room of a specific adult at school they can go to if they feel overwhelmed or have questions.
- Assure your teen that you are willing to reach out to a primary care physician, school social worker, or therapist for care.
Let’s pay close attention if our teens are struggling – offline or online.
The reality is that many teens are struggling right now. Evidence shows that offline risks and behavior changes often coincide or overlap with online risks. For some teens, mental health treatment may include careful evaluation of online activities and plenty of offline skill building. This means that we shouldn’t leave stigma busting, resources, and support just to the content creators on TikTok. Instead, we should step into that space too and parent with mental health in mind.
Let’s approach this content as a starting place for a meaningful conversations about mental health and wellbeing, not the endpoint for diagnosis and treatment.