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Is it Dangerous for My Teenager to Turn to TikTok for Medical Advice?

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I’m so worried,” “I can’t focus,” “I’m just so down,” “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.” These are common phrases psychologists regularly hear from children and adolescents in our communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a substantial increase in mental health crises for youth in the United States, especially those in underserved communities. ADHD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse are the most diagnosed mental disorders among teenagers, with depression and suicide reaching their highest levels in a decade.

Treatment rates vary among disorders, with the National Institutes of Health reporting roughly one in four youth receive mental health services. Various limitations contribute to a lack of seeking treatment: limited access in the community, finances, stigma associated with mental health and fear of judgment. As a result, teenagers seek alternative methods to help with their mental health challenges.

What alternative methods are teens using?

Today, social media is a powerful influence on teen culture. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, roughly 90% of teens have used social media, with 51% reporting they visit it daily. On average, teens are online for approximately nine hours per day. YouTube was reported to be the most popular site among teenagers, followed by TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.

A newer trend currently amongst teens includes seeking social media therapy. It has been reported the term “mental health” has been searched on TikTok over 67 billion times. Teenagers regularly turn to social media platforms to find support for their mental health struggles. Most teens view social media as a safe place to talk or vent about what is going on in their lives. They find helpful coping resources, there is minimal judgment associated with researching mental health via social media and they often feel validated in their struggles when hearing from peers experiencing similar challenges. Additionally, access to social media far surpasses access to a trained mental health professional in their community. Social media usage can be helpful when done responsibly; however, significant limitations pose potential dangers to teens.

Why can seeking medical advice on social media be a bad thing?

Many social media influencers are not trained professionals in mental health; these influencers do not have the background to provide accurate diagnoses. Additionally, there is no guarantee of confidentiality, the information on social media is traditionally not vetted by a trained professional and the skills/resources provided are not guaranteed to be evidence-based treatments. Self-diagnosis can be a slippery slope, especially for teenagers. Most social media platforms operate from an algorithm that organizes content based on an individual's searches.

Therefore, when searching for information on mental health, one runs the chance of having their feed flooded with various mental health topics, which may lead to further over-diagnosing of themselves and their symptoms. When seeking mental health treatment, connecting with someone trained in the diagnosis and appropriate treatment is important.

What signs should I look for in my child’s mental health?

For caregivers, it is crucial to be aware of their teen’s screen time and social media usage. High levels of time spent online may impact overall mental health and contribute to sleeping challenges, decreased academic performance, reduced social time with others, limited physical activity, weight or mood problems, or lower self-esteem or body image issues. Additionally, guardians need to be aware of their teen’s mental health. Signs to be aware of may include the following:

  • Changes in sleep, weight, eating habits or other everyday patterns
  • Loss of interest in the things they previously enjoyed
  • Withdrawing more than usual from friends or family
  • Academic struggles that seem different or more intense
  • Excessive thoughts or worries they can't stop.
  • Refusing to talk about what's bothering them, even after you've made it as safe as possible to discuss hard issues openly
  • Obsession with a specific goal, possibly with the belief that if they don't achieve it, their life will never be the same
  • Signs of drug or alcohol use
  • Signs of self-harm, such as cuts, burns and bruises that your teen tries to hide or can't explain fully and credibly

How can I support my teen’s mental health?

Here are tips for caregivers on talking to their teens about mental health from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:

  • Make it safe for your child to discuss challenging issues with you. Kids often avoid discussing touchy subjects, especially if they expect to be judged, lectured or punished. Confirm that your teen can tell you anything if you still need to clarify this. Emphasize that these conversations will take place in a judgment-free zone. Explain that you want to understand what they're going through and provide loving support.

  • Resolve to listen more than you speak. Nothing will send your teen running the other way faster than failing to see and hear them fully. It would help to manage your fears during the conversation to avoid autobiographical listening. This happens when you filter everything through your life lens instead of listening for deep understanding.

  • Consider ways to avoid putting your teen on the defensive. Naturally, you can't be sure how they will react when you ask about their mental health. But fair, factual statements are usually best. Instead of saying, "You've been acting strange these past few weeks," you could start with an example: "I noticed you hate coming down to dinner lately – and you don't seem hungry at other times. I wondered if something in your life is making it hard for you to enjoy the stuff you usually love, like my killer oatmeal cookies."

  • Accept some silence. Your child might not know what to say, especially if they've been trying to hide their feelings or manage things independently. People having mental health struggles often feel shame and fear on top of everything else. This can make it hard to open up to anyone (even someone they trust). Although you're worried, you can wait for them to think about what they want you to know. If they don't return to you independently, restart the conversation in a few days.

  • Realize that mental health stigma still exists. Despite much progress, some people still believe that having a mental health condition means someone is broken, untrustworthy or potentially violent. Many don't seek mental health treatment because they fear what others will think of them.

Additional points to keep in mind:

  • Mental health is a key part of human health. Caregivers and teens do not need to feel ashamed or fearful in seeking treatment. It's no different from getting care for a broken bone, a serious infection, or other health concerns.

  • Try not to blame yourself for your child's struggles. Life is hard, and kids are doing their best to manage the pressures they face (just as you are, too). Show compassion for yourself and your child as you move forward.

  • Even if you have a history of mental health issues, you are not the root cause of your child's difficulties. Showing love, trust and respect for yourself and your teen is the healthiest way to ensure you both find the necessary resources.

Are there any resources available?

If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find support for your teen, a friend or a family member.

    Learn more about Angelia Spurgin, PhD, licensed psychologist.

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