Study by University of Minnesota students details the mental health challenges of TikTok


Alex Sharp, Contributor

A recent study (that you can find here) conducted by three the University of Minnesota students (Ashlee Milton, Leah Ajmani, and Stevie Chancellor) and one student from the University of Colorado Boulder (Michael Ann DeVito) details the dangers of Tiktok’s “For You” page, calling it a “runaway train,” a train that can lead users down a path of deteriorating mental health and harm self-image and identity. For those who are not familiar, TikTok is one of the world’s most popular and widely used social media apps that has over 1 billion active users as of this year. Its “For You” page (FYP) is a curated feed that shows content to the user based on a robust algorithm. It is deeply personalized and can be scrolled infinitely, which can lead to some harmful effects.


The study, titled: “I See Me Here”: Mental Health Content, Community, and Algorithmic Curation on TikTok, talks about some of these harmful effects and focuses on four research questions: How do users engage with mental health content on TikTok? Do users perceive that TikTok has communities? Are mental health Toks communities? How do users assess the information they receive about mental health on TikTok? What is the role of the For You Page (FYP) in curating mental health content? To answer these questions, the students conducted interviews with 16 different users of TikTok. From the divergent perspectives of the respondents, the students were able to discern some important information: the communities that the respondents perceived that they were a part of were described as distinctively different than that of traditional online health communities (OHCs), however, the perceived support they received from these communities was “indistinguishable” from that of traditional OHCs. What this means is that users are finding solace and identity in the TikTok communities that they are a part of. With that being said, the study details that the respondents indicated that their FYP and their communities can change their perceptions and experience with mental health in real life, saying, “our participants indicated that the FYP heavily mediates peoples’ experiences with

mental health content and community on TikTok. Users felt the algorithm develops quickly and that they cannot control what content or community they are seeing, thus creating what we call a “runaway train” for mental health.”


The interview respondents were able to provide these results through careful experimentation. The students asked participants to send TikTok videos that made them experience a “sense of self,” “a sense of community,” and one that “seemed out of the blue,” then were asked questions about the feelings evoked from the content and how the content related to them. It was found that all the participants of the study engaged with informational mental health content, which includes “symptoms, diagnosis, therapy, treatment, and other content specifically about the clinical and informational aspects of illness.” The participants also detailed videos where content creators would describe their own experiences with mental illness. Some of the participants mentioned that they went to their own therapists and clinicians for diagnoses after watching TikToks that related to their own experiences. Participant 1 “felt they “recognized themselves” in [informational health content] and credited TikTok with their ADHD diagnosis.” Participant 25 used TikTok videos to spark a conversation with their therapist, saying: “TikTok is not an official thing. But I have a psychiatrist, so I brought [these videos] up to him. He’s like ’yeah I kind of noticed that you do these things too’. Then he put me on a list to get tested and then I got tested, and I do have ADHD”


While this seems like it could be a helpful thing for TikTok users, being able to relate to content creators and find diagnoses from content, it can lead users down a harmful path. Misinformation is rampant on TikTok, and the reliability of creators can easily come into question when beginning to understand that the desire for money and social clout can make creators do anything under the sun. The study also describes the difficulty of actually understanding content, and relating it to yourself, mentioning the over-generalization of content and the vulnerability of users everywhere. An example given by Participant 15 speaks specifically on ADHD content. “ADHD TikToks where someone will be like “do you do this” very broad and innocuous thing, then you might have ADHD you know. Lots of people have trouble keeping track of time and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a pretty serious mental disorder.” Participant 24 had a similar experience relating to a friend’s self-diagnosis, saying: “I had a friend who had a family history of bipolar disorder and then she assumed that she had it. A lot of things she would see [on TikTok] read about said, ’if you do this and this, it’s like a symptom of [bipolar]’. There’s a line between “this is something I watched casually”, and “this is something that I’m absorbing with my full being” and I’m becoming what I consume.” The concern comes from information about mental health being taken from content creators as fact and not from a mental health professional. Especially when the user has no control over what is shown to them, the FYP can be a dangerous tool. 


In terms of the “runaway train” analogy, the study details that some participants as thought “the lack of control of the FYP led to harmful consequences to their well-being.” Several participants described the content as coming in “waves,” such as Participant 33. “When Roe V Wade hit I sought out trauma survivors processing Roe V Wade…It changed my For You Page for a little bit. Then, when I go back out of the [trauma content] by starting to favorite[Like] more of the old stuff that I was following it [trauma content] kind of comes in waves, with my mental health. I feel safer that way…because otherwise I’m inundated [in trauma content] and I sometimes get and stay low [mentally] for longer.” The danger is evident from quotes such as these. The “runaway train” takes them to places they don’t want to be, places that can uncover past trauma or create new trauma. With that being said, it is impossible for users to put a stop to this unless they stop using TikTok completely, a task that the study says many participants are “unwilling to do.”


Now, this does not mean that you should stop using TikTok. It just means be wary of that which is peddled to you by the FYP, and if you are having mental health issues, consult a medical professional.