What TikTok does to your mental health: ‘It’s embarrassing we know so little’
“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.”
The lack of understanding in how TikTok affects its users is particularly concerning given the app’s massive popularity among young people, experts say. Increasingly called “the TikTok generation”, Gen Z prefers the platform to other social media, with nearly six in 10 teenagers counting themselves as daily users. The majority of US teens have accounts on TikTok, with 67% saying they have ever 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 Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician who studies the impact of technology on children at Boston Children’s hospital.
“Compared to other social media sites, TikTok is uniquely performative,” said Rich, the pediatrician. “This leads to both interesting content, and some edgy ways of seeking attention that are less healthy.”
TikTok also appears to be “faster than any other platform at detecting interest”, said Marc Faddoul, co-director of Tracking Exposed, a digital rights organization investigating TikTok’s algorithm. The app’s For You Page seems to know its users’ desires and interests so well it has sparked memes.
“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 creates a replacement for social interaction’
Researchers say the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the impact of the platform on users’ lives, especially young ones. When Covid-19 hit, and the world went into lockdown, TikTok’s use exploded.
The app was flooded with young people posting about the ways in which the pandemic was upending their lives. What has resulted is a very young user base taking advantage of the app to connect with one another during a very vulnerable time, said Yim Register, a researcher who studies mental health and social media.
Backlash has already emerged on the platform itself over the increasingly personal nature of the app. “I truly believe years from now people will deeply regret trauma dumping on TikTok,” a user says in one viral video, adding that such content is less likely to be shared on Facebook and YouTube. “What it is it about TikTok that drives people to reveal their deepest, dirtiest secrets?”
Experts agree, saying that while these kinds of videos can offer support and a creative way to deal with grief, it can also lead to additional trauma.
“For many people, disclosing abuse or mental health issues can be traumatic and harmful,” said Rich, the children’s mental health expert. “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.”
The dangers are heightened by the anonymous nature of TikTok, whose feed differs from that of social media in the past, researchers say. While apps such as Facebook historically offered a feed of personal content primarily from friends and family, on TikTok the majority of people who see a user’s videos are largely strangers.
“With TikTok in particular, because of its large user base and the way its algorithm works, videos have the potential to get very big very fast, and not everyone is prepared for that,” Register said. “There are serious consequences to going viral.”