TikTok and social media can distort mental health information for teens

May 27, 2022, 2:38 PM | Updated: Feb 13, 2023, 2:47 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Teens, just like adults can find themselves scrolling through video after social-media video.

The billion — yes billion — users on TikTok are primarily teens and some mental health professionals have stated the platform is negatively impacting the mental health crisis.

Maddie Kennedy, 16, is like many other teens.

“I’m on a lot. I’ll search up makeup tutorials,” she said.

TikTok seems to read her mind. Her interest in beauty tips and movie clips fills her feed with similar content. Licensed clinical social worker Jessica Holzbauer, with Huntsman Mental Health Institute said she sees teens with social feeds filled with heavy topics — like mental illness.

“I would say the vast majority of adolescents that I work with are using TikTok on a daily basis,” Holzbauer said.

TikTok’s algorithm’s can create a problem. Click on a video and that same topic will get served to the user over and over. For Kennedy, it’s mostly harmless with things like makeup brushes or ways to apply cosmetics. But for some, what is viewed can warp perception.

“The typical ups-and-downs of life can get pathologized where people self diagnose into something that’s not really there,” Holzbauer said. That could include depression or suicidal thoughts.

One recently trending topic is MPD or multiple personality disorder.

“By watching content that is either exaggerated or maybe makes a mountain out of a molehill about having multiple personalities when that’s not actually what’s going on,” Holzbauer said.

She said it’s normal for teens to try on different identities as they mature, but if someone tries to form an identity around mental illness, it could perpetuate more extreme forms of mental illness.

Maddie’s mother Melanie Kennedy worries constantly about the influence of social media in her daughter’s life.

“I think the scary thing for parents nowadays is our kids have, in their hands, information and influence that is out of our control,” Melanie Kennedy said.

Holzbauer said there are things parents can do when a child turns to TikTok for answers on sensitive subjects.

“It’s open-ended questions,” she said. “Seeking to understand, asking for more information so that you can read between the lines as well.”

Melanie Kennedy agrees.

“There have been times where Maddie will come and have conversations about things that might be uncomfortable but that is the only thing that I think can protect our kids when they have the influence of these.”

Holzbauer said that discomfort comes from parents who don’t understand the strong influences of social media because they didn’t have it when they were young.

“This is uncharted territory, so adults don’t have a great frame of reference. Adults don’t have a good life experience with social media.”

That makes open communication more important.

“We have to try that much harder, as parents…Their value, their worth, has nothing to do with this. They are important just the way they are.”

While Holzbauer is glad to see an emphasis on mental health, she doesn’t think the best information about it is found on TikTok. She also reminded parents and teens that it takes a trained professional to diagnose and treat someone with mental illness. A first step for parents can be reaching out to a child’s primary care physician.

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TikTok and social media can distort mental health information for teens