Why TikTok Mental Health Videos Can Be Dangerous
Social media has become much more than a form of escapism. Like TV, it serves to entertain us, but it's also increasingly a source of information on everything from news to mental health issues. And experts aren't happy about it.
A new study from PlushCare sought to analyze the accuracy of mental health advice on TikTok. The results are worse than you think.
Determining the Accuracy of TikTok Mental Health Videos
To study mental health TikTok videos, PlushCare had board-certified physicians analyze 500 videos that used related hashtags.
PlushCare's therapy lead, Melissa Dowd, tells Family Minded that the study flagged videos as misleading if they contained inaccurate or potentially damaging advice, encouraged self-diagnosis or were made by someone with no professional qualifications.
Astonishingly, 83.7 percent of all studied videos contained misleading information. And the numbers are worse when considering specific conditions. For instance, 100 percent of videos about ADHD were inaccurate, while bipolar disorder and depression videos were misleading in 94.1 percent and 90.3 percent of cases.
Perhaps even more worrisome is that 14.2 percent of videos were deemed to be potentially damaging. Dr. Dowd explains that this refers to content that could harm a viewer who followed its advice. She particularly points out influencers who encourage viewers to self-diagnose.
Some videos even encouraged people to take a specific medication without any disclaimer about consulting a doctor first.
Inaccuracy Is Also a Big Issue
But TikTok isn't just misleading to those seeking mental health advice, it's also largely inaccurate. The study claims that 31 percent of videos presented advice or information that wasn't accurate. While 54 percent did include some accurate content, that's low for a serious topic that impacts every aspect of your life.
People looking to heal from trauma should especially be careful, as 58.3 percent of videos on trauma were found to have fallacies. This isn't surprising, really, considering the complexity of how people respond to trauma and the various ways that it could manifest.
Symptoms Do Not Equal Diagnosis
One of the main issues of listening to social media advice on this topic is that, as Dr. Dowd clarifies, "symptoms don't amount to a diagnosis." She says that "videos commonly presented as 'signs you are suffering from X' can be dangerous."
Using social media to self-diagnose is the equivalent of googling what symptoms mean for a physical ailment. Spend two seconds on that Google search and you'll think you're dying from a rare tumor.
A diagnosis requires a thorough analysis of a patient's symptoms, lifestyle and medical history. Think about this: A headache could be anything from a sign of stress to a symptom of a brain tumor. But you wouldn't assume the latter until you've spoken with a medical professional and done tests.
Mental health conditions are no different.
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Unsurprisingly yet still disconcerting, only 9 percent of people who made mental health videos have qualifications. The other 91 percent of people are just TikTokers who have taken it upon themselves to make content about something they're passionate about.
Plus, the TikTok algorithm is set up to show you the pages that get the most views, which aren't necessarily the ones run by qualified professionals.
The Dangers of Using Social Media for Wellness
We don't doubt the good intention of the people posting about mental health on TikTok. Most of them probably want to help others. But misinformation is a serious issue, and an inaccurate self-diagnosis or lack of proper care could lead to life-threatening situations.
People who self-diagnose could start taking medications or using coping strategies without consulting a licensed professional. There's also the chance that someone whose symptoms are related to physical issues will misdiagnose themselves based on inaccurate videos.
Experts spend years studying to legally treat patients dealing with mental health conditions because diagnosis and treatment are complex and must be individualized. A video, or a series of videos, could never replace the due diligence a licensed therapist or psychiatrist is required to perform.
Why People Turn to TikTok Rather Than Professionals
Absolutely no one should be using TikTok to replace real counseling. However, it isn't always people's fault.
Dr. Dowd highlights that "licensed therapists aren't always an affordable option, which is why many people turn to free resources like social media for mental health advice." PlushCare estimates that a therapy session costs $100 to $200 in the United States. For many people, this is simply impossible. If this is the case, research to find out if any nonprofits or government programs in your state provide free or affordable therapy.
"Another factor is convenience," states Dr. Dowd. "With no appointment or travel needed, social media users can access videos related to mental health at the click of a button."
And for people who suffer from social anxiety or who fear being judged for their conditions, the lack of vulnerability is appealing. TikTok offers a way to learn about mental health without having to open up to someone.
But again, this isn't an ideal solution and can cause more harm than good.
How to Spot Reliable Videos
While TikTok (or any other social media) can't act as therapy, you can find useful information to learn more about mental health.
Dr. Dowd suggests looking at the creator's profile to make sure they are trustworthy. While relatively rare, experts like Dr. Julie Smith do share advice on the platform. Don't listen to the users posting based on experience or "research" — as we've seen, their content is not accurate or reliable.
If possible, follow up on these social media investigations with regular counseling.
Parenting in the Age of Tiktok
There's no doubt that social media has made parenting more complex. Your children now have access to an infinite stream of information that impacts their self-esteem, behavior and worldviews.
But when it comes to social media and mental health, there are concrete ways in which you can intervene. The most direct one is to talk about this with your kids. Explain to them that not everything they see online is real and even share the results from PlushCare's study to drive your point home.
You should also normalize talking about mental health and seeking professional health when necessary. If you go to therapy, don't hide it from your children, even if you don't share particular details.
This way, they'll be able to come to you to help them get proper treatment rather than turning to misleading videos on TikTok.
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