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The Social Media Effect on Mental Health and TikTok Diagnosis: For Better or for Worse?


The Social Media Effect on Mental Health and TikTok Diagnosis: For Better or for Worse?

Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Clinical Director, KPS


Social media. It is beyond the scope of this post to exhaustively explore all of the ways that social media has had an impact on mental health, both positively and negatively. Positively, social media has given people more access to information; and counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and their associated organizations create videos, blogs, and posts with information, working to demystify mental health diagnoses and provide information about options for working towards greater wellness. People who have themselves been diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Autism, or any other diagnosis may post videos sharing their personal experiences. This can be enormously helpful to someone who may feel isolated in their experiences or who may be trying to gain a deeper understanding into their own personal struggles and strengths. One meta study of the impact of social media (a study collecting the combined results of 50 articles) showed that the positive aspects of social media use included being able to learn from other people’s health experiences as well as from experts, gaining emotional support and community, strengthening offline connections, and engaging in self-expression (Sadagheyani & Tatari, 2021).

That said, there are the repeated studies of the negative impact of social media on mental health. The same meta study of the impact of social media found that negative effects included an increase in anxiety, depression, loneliness, poor sleep, thoughts of self-harm and suicide, negative body image, cyber bullying, and decreased life satisfaction (Sadagheyani & Tatari, 2021).


Results of another recent study demonstrated that reducing social media use by 50% for just three weeks had a clinically significant (positive) impact on how young adults and teenagers felt about their body weight and overall appearance compared to the group who maintained their usual social media use (Thai et al, 2023). Meanwhile, ⅓ of young adults and adolescents report that they have experienced cyber-bullying through social media (Hinduja & Patchin, 2022). (See cyberbullying.org for comprehensive information about cyberbullying, as well as a handout for teens with practical tips on how to protect themselves from cyberbullying.)


A recent review of the international research regarding the effects of looking at images of self harm online found that looking at these images was associated with increased urges to self harm, increased self harm behavior, increased social connections with others who self harmed and increased self identify as someone who self harms. However, there can also be protective factors in social media for those who self harm, through promoting self harm recovery and fostering social connections (Susi et al, 2023).


One particularly harmful use of social media is self-diagnosis. There are about 300 diagnoses contained in the DSM-5-TR, the diagnostic manual used by counselors and psychologists. It takes years of study and preparation to engage in “differential diagnosis”, which is the process of differentiating between two diagnoses that have similar symptoms. A person can experience symptoms that are explained by multiple different diagnoses. For example, some symptoms of inattentiveness in ADHD can look similar to dissociation experienced after trauma, but these are vastly different diagnoses. There are a range of human experiences that may be distressing or unique, but do not warrant a diagnosis at all. There is also a lot of misinformation available on social media to confuse the issue.


Social media can actually spread psychological disorders. Major medical centers have reported a surge in tic-related disorders in teenagers after watching videos of Tourrette’s syndrome on TikTok. One movement-disorder researcher studied 3,000 TikTok videos as part of her research and found that “19 of the 28 most-followed Tourette influencers on TikTok reported developing new tics as a result of watching other creators’ videos” (Jargon, 2021, Teen girls…)


Some teenagers are also self-diagnosing with rare mental health diseases, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (which actually affects only about 1.4% of the American adult population) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (which affects less than 1% of the American population), with views of videos with these hashtags numbering in the hundreds of millions. The problem with these self-diagnoses is that borderline personality disorder is “almost never diagnosed in adolescents, because their personalities are still forming and because some symptoms, such as having unstable personal relationships and exhibiting impulsive behavior, are hard to distinguish from typical teen behavior” (Jargon, 2021, TikTok diagnosis…).


Mental health diagnoses are sometimes used as “social currency” amongst teenagers, and social media algorithms saturate the users’ feed with similar content, leading to the perspective that some diagnoses or experiences are far more common than they actually are.


Regardless of the age of the social-media user, here is a good rule of thumb when it comes to seeking mental health information on social media: stay away from self-diagnosis. Evaluate the credentials of anyone posting information on social media. Use social media to enhance connections and provide information, but if you find yourself identifying with a diagnosis or mental disorder, seek out a professional for more information.


If you have a teenager (or are a teenager) needing help with setting protective boundaries regarding social media, Mayo clinic offers steps for caring adults to help their teens navigate social media, including setting reasonable time limits, monitoring their social media accounts, talking about what is safe and appropriate to share online, encouraging in-person time with peers, and asking them about how social media is affecting their thoughts and emotions (Teens and social media use, 2022). Social media can be used powerfully both for harm or for good; so taking a thoughtful approach towards engaging with it is the wisest approach.


References


Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2018). Preventing cyberbullying: Top ten tips for teens. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://cyberbullying.org/Top-Ten-Tips-Teens-Prevention.pdf


Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2022). Cyberbullying fact sheet: Identification, prevention, and response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://cyberbullying.org/Cyberbullying-Identification-Prevention-Response-2022.pdf


Jargon, J. (2021, Oct. 19). Teen girls are developing tics. Doctors say TikTok could be a factor. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on March 27, 2023, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/teen-girls-are-developing-tics-doctors-say-tiktok-could-be-a-factor-11634389201.


Jargon, J. (2021, Dec. 26). TikTok diagnosis videos leave some teens thinking they have rare mental disorders. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on March 27, 2023, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiktok-diagnosis-videos-leave-some-teens-thinking-they-have-rare-mental-disorders-11640514602?cx_testId=3&cx_testVariant=cx_170&cx_artPos=5&mod=WTRN#cxrecs_s.


Sadagheyani, H.E. and Tatari, F. (2021). Investigating the role of social media on mental health. Mental Health and Social Inclusion, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 41-51. https://doi.org/10.1108/MHSI-06-2020-0039


Susi, K., Glover-Ford, F., Stewart, A., Knowles Bevis, R. & Hawton, K. (2023, March 20). Research review: Viewing self-harm images on the internet and social media platforms: Systematic review of the impact and associated psychological mechanisms. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Retrieved on March 29, 2023, from https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.13754.


Teens and social media use: What’s the impact? (2022, Feb. 26). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on March 27, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437.


Thai, H., Davis, C., Mahboob, W., Perry, S., Adams, A., & Goldfield, G. (2023, Feb. 23).

Reducing social media use improves appearance and weight esteem in youth with emotional distress. Psychology of Popular Media. Retrieved on March 27, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/368754267_Reducing_Social_Media_Use_Improves_Appearance_and_Weight_Esteem_in_Youth_With_Emotional_Distress

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