Is TikTok Bad for Mental Health?


As a parent of a teen who frequents the app, the sheer magnitude of its reach and influence has me paying closer attention to the pros and cons when it comes to her mental health- more so than any app before it.

TikTok can have negative effects on the mental health of its users in addition to having some positive effects. When deciding if TikTok is safe to use, it is important to consider both the pros and cons of this mega-app.

With 1.5 billion downloads and 800 million plus users worldwide, TikTok is more than a social media app. It’s become its own subculture.

With 41% of its users falling between the ages of 16 and 24, youth in over 150 countries are spending an average of 52 minutes a day creating videos for the app.

From it’s teen-friendly design to its entertainment focus to the potential for creators to reach influencer status with every video that “blows up”, this app is … extra.

But just how extra is TikTok when it comes to its effects on the mental health of those that use it? 

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of TikTok when it comes to the mental well being of its users.

The Pros of TikTok.

1. TikTok is an Effective Way to Reach Youth.

In the Digital News Report article; How Younger Generations Consume News Differently, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, a research fellow at the Reuters Institute, describes a study they conducted around youth and the difficulties (news) publishers are having in reaching this particular audience.

He says that; “Young people have a very low threshold for apps that don’t provide a great experience, while they value services that are relevant and useful at all times. No news app was within the top 25 apps used by all the respondents in the study, whereas Instagram was the application found on almost all phones with the highest use in terms of daily minutes used.”

He goes on to clarify that these findings don’t necessarily mean that young consumers do not “value traditional brands” but rather when big news hits, they will turn to a digital version of a major news brand (as per early parental influence) for clarification.

Despite youth seeking clarification via traditional news channels, and with the Covid-19 pandemic still grinding on, we are seeing a growing number of experts and professionals sharing mental health advice on TikTok.

The app is becoming a place where youth can receive news, guidance and entertainment all in one place.

An MTV.com article by Jordyn Tilchen, features Miki Rai, a 23-year-old registered nurse from San Francisco, who has been using popular TikTok dances as a way to share facts about the Coronavirus with her 1.2M viewers. 

“Right now, there’s just so much misinformation out there,” Rai tells MTV News. “When you think about how you want this message to get across, you have to use a method that [young people] can understand, so that’s why I started learning all these random TikTok dances.”

Rai is happy to be a part of a large number of healthcare professionals that are circumventing traditional news sources in order to reach the younger generation, including those that specialize in mental health.

Dr. Julie Smith, a UK psychologist is another professional sharing advice with young people on TikTok. 

In just 3 months she attracted more than 300,000 followers. She offers evidence based skills to advocate for oneself, while managing stress and anxiety and feels that even if someone doesn’t need therapy, a little bit of guidance “can be life changing.”

In honour of Mental Health Month (May), TikTok itself is paying tribute to the various advocates that offer mental health advice on its community page.

2. TikTok Reveals Problems with the Mental Healthcare System. 

In the I-D.vice.com article; How TikTok’s teens are critiquing mental health services, Serena Smith discusses how the app is becoming an important place for young people to express their frustrations over the “failings of mental health services”.

So many teens are using the app for this purpose that Smith calls the group a subgenre, a fitting description when videos with the hashtag #CAMHS – (child and adolescent mental health services) share between them 6.1 million total views.

So what is this subgenre saying about the mental healthcare system? What does their angst look like?

Scroll down through the article to see a fairly typical video by the user “autumnnblazee” protesting the lack of concern and caring on the part of CAMHS. 

Or if you have a TikTok account, do a quick search under “CAMHS fails” to see results such as these:

3. TikTok Offers Parent-Less Connection With Peers.

In a thenextweb.com article; The clueless parent’s guide to understanding TikTok, author and parent Bryan Clark talks about how he is in “awe of the TikTok community”.

He is impressed by how inclusive creators are and how they stand up for each other in the comments and how supportive they are of those that are overweight, mentally or physically disabled or suffering from addiction issues.

As a parent of a 17 year old girl myself, I can vouch that my daughter feels like she has a supportive network through the app.

These kids help each other recognize when they need to reach out for help.

After following her account and reading some of the feedback she gets in the comments, there is definitely a sense of community happening there – a most welcome relief during this time of restricted social interaction. 

Also adding to this sense of teen-togetherness is the low percentage of adults on the site. And by that I mean anyone over the age of 25.

Granted, recent statistics point to a rise in American adults using the app but generally, I think it’s safe to say that the teen-aged mental health tribe are not being policed by their parents. At least not on TikTok.

In the Wired article; TikTok Breaks All the Rules of App Design – but Somehow it Still Works, Nicole Kobie describes the app’s “unreadable text, obscure and confusing icons and non-existent menus” saying that “TikTok, like Snapchat before it, is a brilliant design nightmare”. 

She also quotes Cennydd Bowles, a digital design expert whose CV includes positions at Twitter, BBC and Samsung, and is the author of Undercover User Experience Design. 

Bowles suggests that apps like TikTok are designed for “play and serendipity” but may also be designed to deter and discourage older users. 

“The theory, which I think is somewhat credible, was that by creating this intentionally slightly hard to use, slightly obscure design pattern, young users weren’t going to be interfered with by parents joining the service,” he says. 

“Because parents are opening it up and going, ’I have no idea what’s going on here’ and quickly give up.”

I can personally attest to this theory. I joined TikTok and it took me almost two weeks to make one video! Granted, I don’t have large stretches of time to dedicate to such an endeavor but even my tech-savvy daughter says making a (good) TikTok video takes a lot of time and effort. 

Under her expert tutelage and advice on hashtags etc, my video still only has one view and one follower. I’m sure you can guess who that is. Meanwhile, her videos have attracted over 25,000 views.

Discrimination against us old people perhaps? Maybe. So, it looks like this one is a “pro” for the youth of TikTok and not so much for their parents.

4. TikTok is a New Platform for Mental Health Issues

When I think back to my teen years, and imagine myself a TikToker (or any digital technology user) … I must admit, I think I would have loved it.

It would have given me mad anxiety for sure but I also think it would have provided a much needed, visually satisfying, dopamine inducing outlet for my angst.

I would have been all over the chance to edit and post cool videos that didn’t require a lot of previous skill or knowledge in production or editing. I would have rejoiced at the adulation of my peers as seen through my ever growing pile of “likes”.

As my peer (in age only), Gary Vaynerchuck, social media guru extraordinaire says:

“TikTok’s app is training wheels for future influencers and content creators”.

He describes the app as providing a framework for “younger than ever” creators that will make content creation much easier, especially if they are stuck for ideas.

The Cons of TikTok.

To address the elements of TikTok that are harmful to the mental health of its users, is to address all digital technology. 

However, when it comes to social media apps, TikTok seems to have the potential to exacerbate the problems due to its unique design and formidable reach.

In this Ben Angel interview; Can Social Media Have Negative Effects on the Brain? with learning expert Jim Kwik, we are presented with four major hazards of social media, all of which apply nicely to TikTok.

1. TikTok Causes Digital Overload

“In five minutes, the app had sandblasted my cognitive matter with twenty TikToks that had the legibility and logic of a narcoleptic dream.”

Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker

Digital overload is basically the taking in of too much information in too short of a time. Kwik describes us as “drowning in information. Taking a sip of water out of a firehose.”

The effects on our mental health and health in general?

Here is a list from learning-mind.com

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Low mood or energy
  • A decreased cognitive performance which ultimately affects your decision-making skills
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Impaired vision
  • Diminished productivity
  • Strong compulsion to check emails, apps, voice mails, etc.
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid dreams
  • Tiredness

I’ve often wondered if being on our devices too much causes some of the ailments prevalent in our family. From my declining eyesight (which sped up noticeably since I started this blog) to my husband’s disturbed and restless sleep (he reads on his phone right up until he dozes off) to my son’s tantrums after watching too much Paw Patrol to my daughter’s lightning-fast, ultra-timely responses to text messages and unexplained headaches.

2. TikTok Causes Digital Distraction

In the Harvard Business Review article; Conquering Digital Distraction, Larry Rosen and Alexandra Samuel discuss our “culture of constant connection” and the toll digital distractions take on our lives.

They cite the work of the late Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University, showing us how; “people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time”.

They ask the question; WHY are we allowing these distractions to infiltrate our lives to such a great extent and have come up with FOMO and FOBO as the answers. 

The first time I came across the acronyms was when looking at one of my daughter’s Instagram posts. I noticed #fomo, #fobo attached to the bottom of the photo.

She explained what Fear Of Missing Out and Fear Of Being Offline meant. Much to my dismay, I can see now that she suffers from both.

I thought this seemed a bit ridiculous but they are an actual thing with the younger generations.

Rosen and Samuel credit these fears as the reason we (especially the young amoung us) just cannot put down our screens.

It seems the fear of being the last to know or the last to comment or the last to “like” trumps all else, including our need for focus, peace and a full night’s sleep.

So, what about TikTok and digital distraction? 

In this interview with John Koetsier and Digital Sociologist, Dr. Julie Albright, we learn how TikTok specifically contributes to our ever shrinking attention spans through the design of the app, it’s scrolling features in particular. 

Add in the constant, automatic content feed, a total lack of white space for visual relief and you’ve got an experience that rivals a night at the slots in Vegas. 

So how does one avoid digital distraction? Here are a few quick tips from Liz Solten’s article; How to Prevent Digital Distraction.

  • Create a “tech blackout” day once a week. 
  • Set boundaries for text-free spaces and times.
  • If you can’t disconnect, relocate. Everyone brings their devices into a shared space instead of isolating in separate rooms.
  • Turn off notifications and set specific times to answer email or check Facebook a few times a day. 

In our house, all devices go on airplane mode at night. We started this practice a few months ago and we’ve found that it makes a difference in the quality of our sleep.

3. TikTok Causes Digital Dementia 

“Digital Dementia” is a term coined by neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer to describe the overuse of digital technology resulting in the breakdown of our cognitive abilities. 

When our devices do all our thinking for us, it makes sense that our brains will weaken. 

I notice it happening to myself quite often. I actually had to make a point of memorizing my husband’s phone number recently, after feeling embarrassed when I couldn’t recall it from memory on several different occasions. 

That is just a small example, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that having access to the infinite amount of information that digital technology provides, does not make us more knowledgeable or better able to retain information.

According to the article The “online brain”: How the Internet May be Changing our Cognition; “The Internet acts as a single entity that is responsible for holding and retrieving virtually all factual information, and thus does not require individuals to remember what exact information is externally stored, or even where it is located.”

It’s also made other, external receptacles for “cognitive offloading” redundant. Relics such as books, relatives, friends, neighbours have all become unnecessary for the keeping and sharing of information. No one’s brain really needs to work in that way, any longer. 

Basically, our brains are becoming weaker and are not functioning in the same way as they used to and the harmful effects of the digital world on our brain health are bubbling to the surface with increasing severity. 

Take South Korea for example. With almost 100% of homes equipped with broadband, it’s the world’s most wired country. 

In a paper by Larry Dossey, MD called FOMO, Digital Dementia, and Our Dangerous Experiment, we learn of a school for internet addicted teens called; Jump Up Internet Rescue School. Located near Seoul, it’s the first of its kind and is described as;

“Part boot camp, part rehab center, the school resembles programs around the world for troubled youth. “Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming,” according to The New York Times in an in-depth report.

Korean parents are actively looking to heal their children’s anxiety and addiction to digital technology, so much so that for every one spot available at the school, there are 4-5 additional applicants.

Students of the Jump Up Internet Rescue School in S. Korea.

According to Dossey, along with addiction to digital technology, Korean researchers are taking a close look at Digital Dementia.

He says that, “Physicians studying this phenomenon say that heavy Internet use may overdevelop the left side of the brain and leave the right side underdeveloped.

Attention and memory span are affected, along with impulse control.”

“Many heavy Internet users, which includes 18% of those between 10 and 19 years of age who use their smartphones for more than seven hours a day, cannot perform simple memory tasks such as recalling their own phone numbers.”

Scary stuff. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid Digital Dementia, according to Kwik, which include taking regular breaks from our devices.

4.   TikTok Causes Digital Depression

Jim Kwik calls Digital Depression a comparison problem. When someone spends hours a day endlessly scrolling through the “highly curated, highly filtered, highlight trailer” of someone else’s life and then compares themselves to what they see, they may feel like they’re not enough.

Pause for the collective cringe of all the Marisa Peer fans out there. Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression.

In several recent studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time on the apps.

As mentioned, my own teenage daughter is an avid TikTok creator and I have seen her in action both pre and post video production.

She spends a lot of time on her makeup, planning her outfits, finding the best angles and of course, the narrative of the video itself.

Despite her claims that TikTok is more about spontaneity and rejecting the curated and filtered perfection of Instagram, I am seeing ample evidence to the contrary, both at home and on the app itself. 

As my daughter tosses her hat into the ring of the endless scroll that is TikTok, I do worry that she’ll become depressed comparing herself to others, as she has done in the past while using other apps.

For those teens who suffer from digital depression, it certainly doesn’t help that TikTok has used and perhaps still uses an algorithm to make sure those “without flaws” are positioned to rule the “For You” promotional page. 

According to a studybreaks.com article called; The Dark Side of TikTok Has Emerged in the Algorithm by Abby Webb, a German digital rights blog called Netzpolitik revealed in 2019, that TikTok was suppressing the content of certain “vulnerable” creators for the purpose of “protecting them” from online bullying.

Netzpolitik reported that in accordance with the app’s “rulebook”, TikTok moderators were instructed to “analyze videos featuring users with mental and physical disabilities and to subsequently flag them for an algorithm that would ban them from the promotional “For You” page.”

Webb goes on to explain that these “vulnerable” creators include those with; Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, facial disfigurements as well as people in wheelchairs and amputees.

Upon further digging, Netzpolitik also found proof that those creators identifying with the LGBTQ flags or captioning themselves as “fat and self-confident” were also kept from getting their content in the lime-light.

Once exposed, TikTok admitted to these policies, but claimed their intentions were pure and that the policies are “no longer in use” and they have replaced them with “more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.” Whatever that means.

Whether or not marginalized creators are currently getting a fair shake at TikTok exposure remains a matter of opinion it seems. My daughter thinks those deemed “less desirable” still are not adequately represented and even in my own experience with the app, I have yet to see a single person on my For You page that fits the “vulnerable” criteria.

So, not only are the marginalized groups being under-represented on the app, those that are not considered vulnerable are not seeing a true representation of who is out there and what their lives are really like.

Conclusion.

So, there we have it. When it comes to its effects on mental health, TikTok has its benefits and its drawbacks. 

As a parent of a teen active on the app, the beneficial aspects of community, guidance and sharing of mental health challenges are apparent.

On the other hand, it poses the same danger to mental health that all digital technology does, perhaps to a greater degree due to its sheer magnitude and immense popularity.

I do believe this app is different. Perhaps it’s time we give this behemoth of the social media world the extra attention it warrants and up our diligence when it comes to helping our kids maintain their mental wellbeing and a balanced relationship with digital technology.

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