TikTok Is Leading Teens To (Wrongly) Self-Diagnose Their Mental Health

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
Originally Published: 
Black-haired girl wearing a black shirt while lying on a blue bed and holding her mobile phone

I will admit it: I am addicted to TikTok. I watch it to laugh and to learn. And there are lots of opportunities to do both. But I am 42 and I have a pretty good idea of what is real and what to take with a grain of salt.

My teenage son does not have the same discernment. I keep a pretty close eye on what he is watching on TikTok and I don’t let him scroll endlessly. I want to give him his freedom, but I am also not ready to throw him to the wolves.

A new trend among young TikTok users is sharing their mental health information and specific diagnosis that they believe that they have. Yes, there are people who have these diagnoses and truly are telling their stories, but there are also a great deal of copycats that are not necessarily similarly inflicted. When you are dealing with adolescents who are going through tough times in their lives, it may be difficult to distinguish between teenage trials and true medical diagnoses.

Many young people are going to TikTok and following specific hashtags for mental illness, such as borderline-personality disorder or multiple-personality disorder, according to the Wall Street Journal. These are particularly rare mental health disorders that so many of these teens just don’t have; yet they’re being convinced otherwise. The ubiquity of TikTok is also leading to an increase in disordered eating.

Recently, TikTok has been blamed for a sharp uptick in Tourette syndrome-like outbursts, due in part to several popular content creators who showcase what it’s like to live with Tourette’s. “When it comes to social media, this should be a wake-up call for us all,” pediatric neurologist Mohammed Aldosari, MD, told the Cleveland Clinic.

TikTok released a statement in September 2021 that explained their commitment to the mental health of its users, who demographically are young.

“We care deeply about our community, and we always look for new ways in which we can nurture their well-being. That’s why we’re taking additional steps to make it easier for people to find resources when they need them on TikTok,” the statement read. “To help our community do this safely, we’ve rolled out new well-being guides to support people who choose to share their personal experiences on our platform, developed with the guidance of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, Crisis Text Line, Live For Tomorrow, Samaritans of Singapore and Samaritans (UK). The guides, which are available on our Safety Center for informational purposes only, also offer tips to help our community members responsibly engage with someone who may be struggling or in distress.”

While these are important and welcomed measures, it does not negate the fact that adolescents are impressionable. But impressionability is not limited to the young. Think about yourself. As an adult, how many times have you started to feel ill and immediately gone to WebMD for advice? You have most certainly found yourself worrying that your condition is far more serious than it really is. This is most definitely true of young people and their mental health.

Another concern, particularly for those with disordered eating, is that they are getting themselves wrapped up in negative diet culture. While the thought of before and after photos and endless recipes and tips may truly be innocent, they can have negative effects.

“We felt for a long time that we were competing with social media,” John Fridley, the father of a teen who “thought she had a different diagnosis every few weeks”, told the Wall Street Journal. “For any child with mental-health issues, to be alone in their room with their thoughts and with TikTok is a dangerous combination.”

So what do we do to help our young people with their mental health?

The Wall Street Journal offered the following tips:

Listen To Your Teen

They will have a lot to say. It may be difficult to hear, or even to understand, but having a parent as a touchstone is so, so important. If they feel comfortable enough to talk to you, it is a great place to start. This will begin the conversation and can segue into finding the proper help from a professional.

“[Teens] become distressed when their families or medical professionals just dismiss them or even doubt them,” Dr. Aldosari told the Cleveland Clinic. “The worst message they can get is that they’re ‘faking it.’”

Put The Social Media Away For A While

We all need to recharge and refocus sometimes. Have you ever taken a break from social media just to regroup and get yourself back in order? Young people need the same kind of fresh start. It wouldn’t hurt to take away their devices for a while and help them to focus their energy on more positive things like a hobby, schoolwork, or even more family time. Play a board game, watch a movie, and just stay away from that which is potentially harmful.

Get Rid Of Your Social Media Counts All Together And Start Over

Because TikTok uses a powerful and often spot-on algorithm to curate users’ For You page, it may be a good idea to delete your account and start over completely. With a new account, you can avoid the type of content that isn’t good for your mental health and move on to new things. Though if that isn’t a viable option, you can also click “not interested” on mental health-related videos until they no longer show up on your page.

There are certainly benefits to sharing mental health information on platforms like TikTok. It is helping to end the stigma and letting others begin to understand more about mental health. By learning more about mental illness, we are given an opportunity to embrace those with different challenges and abilities than we may have. We all need to learn to be a bit more kind and to give grace to those who may be struggling.

Treating and understanding mental health is difficult no matter what age. When it comes to our kids, we want them to understand who they are and what their feelings are. If they are having a hard time, be sure that they know that they can come to you at any time. Let them know that you are keeping an eye on their social media and what they are viewing. It is a powerful resource that can sometimes do more harm than good. The more you know about your child and their habits, the better off you will be.

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