TikTok has shot to fame as a viral video-sharing app where people post snappy content for teenagers to scroll through. Although it has received praise for starting conversations around young people’s mental health, there is also a dark side to this popular app as many young people are watching videos that spread harmful misinformation, as well as diagnosing themselves with severe mental health conditions.
The Positive Side of TikTok
TikTok has risen to fame in recent years as the app that spawns video after viral video. However, TikTok contains more than just funny content – it also includes a lot of information about mental health.
There are several positives that can come from highlighting mental health online. Young people dealing with their own issues can come together and offer support and helpful tips on how to deal with their symptoms. Viral TikToks about the realities of living with eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression help normalise mental health conditions and send the message that people are not alone.
Videos discussing the symptoms of various conditions and sharing tips on coping rack up millions of views daily. But does this information cause more harm than good?
The Positives of TikTok
There are millions of videos about mental health on TikTok, covering topics from anxiety to depression to borderline personality disorder (BPD) among others. Many people, both young and old, have turned to TikTok to share their experiences and tips on coping with various conditions.
Some people have praised this as a positive, as these videos draw awareness to important issues and help young people to be more comfortable talking about their mental health. The videos also draw attention to symptoms of mental health conditions that some people may not have realised were an issue. Realising this can spur them into action and encourage them to get help, which may lead to a mental health diagnosis and a plan to help them get better.
TikTok has also been a community to which many young people turned during the long years of the Covid-19 pandemic. With thousands of people discussing their mental health, coping methods, and hope for the future, the app has been a source of comfort for many young people.
The Dark Side
Mental health is a prevalent topic on TikTok. The hashtag anxiety has 13.7bn views, BPD has 4.5bn views, and mental health has 32.2bn.
Although there is a positive side to the prevalence of mental health and a clear opening up of conversations around the topic, there is undoubtedly a negative side. Many mental health professionals have seen an influx of young people claiming to have severe mental health conditions such as BPD, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, because of the content they have seen on TikTok.
A recent study found that of the top 100 most popular videos on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) found on TikTok, 52% were misleading, with some suggesting that specific symptoms were found only in ADHD. TikTok has also been linked to a rise of tics in adolescents, with experts theorising that influencers on the app were causing young women especially to emulate their behaviours.
TikTok has an algorithm that tracks what users watch and like and then shows them more content along the same lines. If young people watch more content about mental health and the symptoms of various conditions, then TikTok will push more across their For You page – the main homepage of the app.
Many mental health professionals and lawmakers have expressed concern about how TikTok impacts young people. A group of state attorneys from several states in America are investigating the effects of TikTok on teen health, and in 2019 the app was the centre of a scandal about its predecessor Musical.ly, which did not get the proper permission from the parents of young users. The settlement reached in this case also required TikTok to put strict limitations on how children under 13 could use it to protect them from harmful content.
Social Media and Teen Mental Health
It is well known that social media has a significant impact on teen mental health. Young adults who use social media for several hours a day are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and many can become distressed if they cannot get online or spend as much time on social media as they would like to.
Although TikTok can have some of these effects, it is slightly different as alongside inadvertently exacerbating symptoms of anxiety and depression; it could also influence teenagers to misdiagnose themselves with a mental illness without consulting a medical professional because they can relate to the symptoms.
Young adults who self-diagnose may do so from a desire to belong to a specific peer group, a need to rebel, or genuinely thinking they suffer from a specific illness. However, for some, the attention and support they get from thinking they have this condition can reinforce their belief they have it and strengthen the symptoms they experience. Some have dubbed this the horoscope effect, which means that it operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The prevalence and popularity of mental health content on TikTok have led to many young people falsely diagnosing themselves with mental health conditions.
Although seeing and relating to content that outlines the symptoms of various mental health conditions can be a positive thing which can lead to a professional diagnosis, it can do more harm than good by adversely leading some to believe that normal thoughts and feelings are symptomatic of a severe condition such as BPD.
If you know a young person concerned about their mental health, reach out to The Wave today. Our expert psychiatrists will be able to help you reach a conclusion and determine the correct course of treatment appropriate.
 Yeung, A., Ng, E. and Abi-Jaoude, E., 2022. TikTok and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Cross-Sectional Study of Social Media Content Quality. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, p.070674372210828.
 Pringsheim, T, Ganos, C, McGuire, JF, et al. Rapid onset functional tic-like behaviors in young females during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mov Disord. 2021;36(12):2707-2713. Epub ahead of print August 13, 2021. doi: 10.1002/mds.28778.
 Heyman I, Liang H, Hedderly TCOVID-19 related increase in childhood tics and tic-like attacksArchives of Disease in Childhood 2021;106:420-421.
Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on email@example.com.