Note from the editor: this blogs includes references to sensitive topics that some people might find upsetting, like eating disorders. While the blog touches on key points that can help raise awareness and break the stigma about mental health, some elements may remind you of difficult times you may have experienced in the past.
In the past decade, the issue of mental health has moved from a medical discussion reserved for clinical settings, to a more widely discussed societal issue, opening doors to de-stigmatization, increased visibility, and new prevention and treatment options. Mental health, for the most part, is slowly being recognized as the pervasive issue it truly is. These new conversations about mental health go hand-in-hand with a more nuanced understanding of how social media affects adolescent wellbeing.
Massive digital platforms like Instagram and Snapchat can be used to meet new people and explore new interests. However, while social media can be used for good, there are downsides to such large uncontrolled platforms; constant exposure to an airbrushed reality can create unrealistic standards and a competition for views and likes. There is plenty of research exploring whether social media aids or worsens adolescent mental health. Harvard School of Public Health, for example, researched the emotional drain social media can have on users (which are primarily teenagers), but also the benefits of being able to meet new people and stay in contact with friends who may be far away (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/social-media-positive-mental-health/). As a teen who regularly uses social media myself, lockdown measures due to COVID-19 opened my eyes to the pitfalls of engaging in mental health conversations on social media. In particular, I noticed that the pressure to reach a certain threshold of views and likes negatively impacts crucial discussions of mental health, turning them into a game of numbers.
During the pandemic, social media use drastically changed among people who had regular access to online platforms. People were isolated and consuming larger quantities of online entertainment. At the start of 2020, around 70% of the US population engaged in social media in some way (that’s around 232 million Americans). But, by July of 2020, when COVID-19 was in full swing, 6.9 million more Americans had created social media accounts for the first time (https://backlinko.com/social-media-users). Interestingly, quarantine didn’t just amplify the sheer number of new users around the nation, it also changed why people used social media in the first place. More so than ever, social media during 2020 served as a diversion from the tragic chaos unfolding worldwide. Quarantine was traumatic on various levels and turning to fun dances and binge-worthy shows online seemed like a reasonable way to escape the harsh reality of a global pandemic.
One app in particular, TikTok, grew volumes in popularity during the pandemic. Tiktok is a free app used to share 15 seconds to 1-minute-long videos about anything, whether it’s comedy, a newly choreographed dance, art, or music. The app is boundless. It is easy to use, easy to share, and accessible to anyone who can find a way around the loose “13 or older” age requirements.
As quarantine progressed, my “For You Page” on Tiktok was flooded with posts about mental health visibility and encouragement. With every scroll came a new post about a mental health struggle I believed I was alone in having, like social anxiety, isolation, and eating disorders. Initially, these posts were comforting; I was exposed to a platform where mental health conditions were normalized, and vulnerability was encouraged. The app felt like a safe space. But as the pandemic progressed, I noticed patterns in my own mental health that seemed distorted and out of character. For example, in the blink of an eye, I realized I had developed an eating disorder. It was easy to avoid confronting my own issues with eating if I could go on an app and see other teens my age struggle with the same issue. If we all were suffering with the same problems, were they really “problems” at all?
It’s easy to ignore an actual problem, when the problem is masked by something as elementary as numbers. From the screen of my phone, suddenly, mental health had a popularity aspect. Getting a quick fix of comfort from strangers only happened if you reached a certain threshold of views. Without reaching the right audience, disorders would be sidelined or even shamed for being not as pressing as others. On any given post that came onto my “For You Page,” the credibility of the user’s expressed emotions and fears was contingent on the number of comments and likes the post received. Seeing a new post about a struggle I related to, for example, with very little comments or likes, seemed to invalidate my own mental health. Those struggles, it seemed, were not pressing enough to reach a large audience. I wish I could tell myself from 6 months ago that comments from other online users below a video on my “For You Page” about disordered eating did not dictate if I was actually sick.
The truth is, it’s exhausting to be genuinely struggling but feel like your mental health doesn’t fit into the “For You Page” algorithm. An impersonal calculation of likes and views made me question the validity of my disorder for a long time. If not eating wasn’t going viral or blowing up with positive comments, it’s easy to conclude that your struggle isn’t real enough to matter or to reach the right people. And herein lies the issue. When an app automatically quantifies emotional states through the amount of likes and views the videos get, users can rank their pain or situation as more eye-catching than the next user. Mental health becomes a competition -- say the right thing, comment on other people’s posts with encouragement, or put down other people’s mental health struggles to uplift the severity and urgency of your own.
I could blame an app for my mental health issues during the pandemic, but I know that would be unfair. Tiktok is not to blame. The algorithm is not to blame. I am not to blame. Certainly, other teenage users are not to blame. Evaluating social media apps like Tiktok is incredibly complicated, because there is no perfect solution to the complexities of enormous social media platforms. Often the easiest response is to do away with social media all together, which isn’t realistic considering social media is a necessary way in our online, technology-oriented world, for young adults and teens to interact and socialize.
There is no “solution” to social media and turning it into a force for good, because there are countless pros and cons to teen use of it. One thing we can learn from COVID-19 and its impact on teen use of apps like Tiktok is how detrimental a “like” system can be. Arbitrary numbers on social media posts is a pressing issue that can be addressed. If we can convert social media into a space where people can comment and share neutrally without the pressure of gaining the largest audience or saying the right thing to trigger a certain amount of likes, social media would be much safer and provide a much more positive experience for users. Hiding numbers of likes and comments removes the element of competition and rivalry on apps.
Lastly, one more step that could make social media more honest and less competitive when mental health issues are discussed is to increase the presence of mental health professionals on social media platforms. Apps like TikTok often fund interviews and public accounts for celebrities and soon-to-be-released movies, why can’t we do the same for mental health professionals who can help to debunk some of the false information that can easily spread on a large online forum? Not only would debunking misinformation aid in making mental health conversations more grounded and genuine on social media, but competition based on false assumptions of severity and the significance of certain conditions can be minimized.
As much as the issue of social media and mental health seems impossible to tackle, small steps like removing a like-count and introducing professionals onto large apps can allow users to share authentically and more openly with one another.