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Doctors Argue TikTok is Bad for Your Mental Health


TikTok is the fastest growing social media app in the world with over 30 million daily active users and a billion accounts worldwide. The platform has become especially popular among teenagers and young people, but experts say there’s still a lot we don’t know in terms of its effects on mental health. The app is changing the way we consume culture and digital information across the internet, and we’re discovering the consequences as they occur in real-time.

“It’s embarrassing that we know so little about TikTok and its effects,” said Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. “Research often lags behind industry, and this is an example of an instance where that could become a big problem.”

Generation Z, or the “TikTok Generation” as it’s become known, is more likely to use the app than other generations. According to the Pew Research Center, most teens in the U.S. have accounts on TikTok, with 67% saying they have used the app and 16% saying they use it “almost constantly”.

“We owe it to ourselves and to the users of these platforms to understand how we are changed by the screens we use and how we use them,” said Michael Rich, a pediatrician who studies the impact of technology on children at Boston Children’s hospital. “We need more information to make informed decisions on how we’re going to help younger people understand how to use them thoughtfully and mindfully – or not use them at all.”

Our obsession with social media is nothing new, but TikTok works differently than other apps like Instagram and Twitter.

The algorithm behind TikTok uses minutes and hours of view time as an indicator of viewer interest rather than engagement metrics like clicks and “likes”. This brings more extreme views and reactions to the fore and creates more of an emotional response in the viewer.

“What that does to the brain, we don’t know,” said Lorenz-Spreen.

The app is also uniquely performative. It encourages viewers to join in using the Duet feature. Numerous challenges have also trended on the app where users are encouraged to engage in risky or outright dangerous behavior. It delivers highly tailored content to keep viewers engaged.

Overall, TikTok is “faster than any other platform at detecting interest”, said Marc Faddoul, co-director of Tracking Exposed, a digital rights organization investigating the app’s algorithm.

This can be problematic, especially as it relates to sensitive issues like personal trauma and mental illness.

“The app provides an endless stream of emotional nudges, which can be hard to recognize and really impact users in the long run,” Faddoul said. “It’s not going to make anyone depressed overnight, but hours of consumption every day can have a serious impact on your mental health.”

It may also lead to more interactions with misinformation. The app led to an increase in the number of ADHD diagnoses among children after the hashtag #ADHD went viral.

Many people have taken to the app as a way of venting their deepest, darkest secrets.

“The platform spirit of TikTok seems to be about posting very loudly about very intimate and intense things,” Register said. “And people are encouraged to be vulnerable to fit that spirit.”

Lots of posts refer to deeply personal moments and situations, but the act of sharing and recognizing trauma can lead to additional trauma, experts warn.

“For many people, disclosing abuse or mental health issues can be traumatic and harmful,” said Rich. “In clinical work, we have systems in place for if a disclosure occurs – there is a safety net to catch them. And that does not exist in a social media environment.”

Researchers say using the app may not cause trauma in and of itself, but it may exacerbate existing mental health issues.

“Most computing is not trauma informed, and when social media is not trauma informed it can exacerbate trauma,” Register said. “When I look at social media, the question is not how it affects your mental health, but how do mental health issues you already have get exacerbated by its design?”

Rich believes the app needs more investigation to see if additional safeguards are needed to protect users.

“Legislators and these companies need to invest more in really understanding this interface between human nature and these platforms,” he said. “We need more information to make informed decisions on how we’re going to help younger people understand how to use them thoughtfully and mindfully – or not use them at all.”

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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