Questions and answers
TikTok, the global sensation: is this app fun or dangerous? Following the launch of a national survey on the negative impacts of the video platform, Psychiatric timeMT sat down with Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD, to talk about it.
Psychiatric Times (PT): Attorneys general in several states have launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on the mental health of young users. What does the medical literature/research show about TikTok and its impact?
Halpern: Search specific to social media and TikTok is relatively new and continues to emerge. Some research shows that people with attention difficulties may experience more difficulty with social media. Other research has concluded that children with complex mental disorders and environmental stressors or trauma may see at least a temporary increase in emotional symptoms after using social media.
Social issues based on personal values and ethics impacted by the use of social media were also discovered. However, data are limited, causality has not yet been clearly established, personal factors impacting positive and negative outcomes are unclear, and the long-term impact has not yet been fully investigated being given that the use of social media and related research is relatively new. Additionally, studies on individual platforms like TikTok, as opposed to social media as a whole, are very limited. Given that the research is mixed, not definitive and still in its infancy and although there is clearly cause for concern there are likely positive and negative results resulting from the use of social media.
PT: Has research shown that it is more harmful for boys or girls?
Halpern: I haven’t come across any definitive research suggesting that Tik Tok is more harmful based on gender.
PT: About 1 billion users are on TikTok. Do you think he’s gotten too big to control at this point? Is this part of the problem?
Halpern: TikTok is indeed a big platform. Although there are parental controls available, not all parents have the knowledge to protect their children from inappropriate content. Although there is a restricted mode, the size of the site may very well let inappropriate content.
Also, not all topics can be filtered properly, and what families deem appropriate for one child may be inappropriate for another. Given this, the size of TikTok makes it likely that any child using the platform will be exposed to inaccurate information and something potentially upsetting, harmful or traumatic, even with parental supervision and careful use.
PT: During the pandemic, TikTok has become a trend setter: making bread, whipping coffee, dancing. Are there any potential positives you see in the app? Did it kind of help us get closer?
Halpern: Absoutely. There are a range of benefits that can come from using TikTok and other social media platforms. This includes allowing people to interact on their interests; learn a new hobby; promote their businesses and creations; share playful, fun or educational content; mobilizing peacefully around social and political issues; establishing a sense of identity; and even learn about other cultures. Positive content on TikTok can be empowering and educational. Particularly during the pandemic, it has become a source of both entertainment and connection for many. This was essential to many people’s well-being during a time of isolation and fear.
PT: On the other hand, have things like TikTok dancing contributed to the oversexualization of young people’s bodies?
Halpern: It is reasonable to conclude that some of the content on TikTok, including some of the dances, can lead to oversexualization of young people’s bodies. The oversexualization of children by the media in general is a long-standing concern, especially for women. These concerns are based on the standards of beauty and sexuality depicted by the bodies and styles of models and performers, as well as song lyrics, dances, music videos and depictions of children and adolescents in videos, television and movies. Recent press and high profile anecdotes also suggest a potential negative impact on body image for all genders. To fully understand the oversexualization caused by TikTok, specific research on the impact of dances and other potentially sexual content available on the platform is needed.
PT: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the lead Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said: “TikTok threatens the safety, mental health, and well-being of our children.”1 Do you think this opinion is somehow related to adults’ lack of understanding and fear of this new method of engagement for their children?
Halpern: Based on currently available research, there is evidence that adults’ lack of understanding and fear are factors when making judgments about the negative impacts of TikTok and other social media platforms. However, there is also cause for concern given the content available on TikTok, the differences in ethics and values surrounding TikTok content, the pressures children and teens may feel based on TikTok content, and the possibility of encountering an online predator while using the application. Ultimately, research began to show both risks and benefits for young people using TikTok and other social media platforms.
PT: The focus is on TikTok here, but what about Instagram, Snapchat and other forms of social media? What does current medical literature say about their harmful effects, and aren’t they similar to TikTok in promoting things like eating disorder content?
Halpern: There is a critical need for research on the impact of individual platforms and content. Current research has shown a mixture of positive and negative outcomes resulting from the use of social media. As with TikTok, there is preliminary research suggesting both positive (eating disorder recovery) and negative (pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia) impacts of eating disorder content across multiple media platforms. social.
PT: A social media influencer in Germany may have contributed to what researchers call “social media-induced mass illness,” in which patients exhibited Tourette’s symptoms and tics closely resembling the tics of l. social media influencer.2 Apps like TikTok can help raise awareness about mental illness, but do you think it helps with self-diagnosis as well?
Halpern: Yes absolutely. That said, self-diagnosis can be both positive and negative. For some, self-diagnosis opens the door to greater self-understanding and improved self-esteem, and can lead to seeking medical diagnosis and support. For others, self-diagnosis can be detrimental and even dangerous, particularly if the conclusions drawn are inaccurate or based on misinformation.
PT: Finally, what advice would you give to mental health clinicians talking about social media with children, adolescents and their parents?
Halpern: Mental health clinicians should continue to monitor research on the use of social media in order to make specific recommendations when talking to children, adolescents and their parents. They should consider individual factors and help families weigh the pros and cons of using social media, including the pros and cons of different social media platforms. Additionally, mental health clinicians should encourage parents to explore parental controls that might be effective and appropriate for their family. They should also encourage families to discuss appropriate monitoring of their child’s social media use, based on family values and individual needs.
PT: Thank you!
Dr Halpern is the director of the SOAR program at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates.
1. Associated Press. California among the states is launching an investigation into the health effects of TikTok on children. KTLA. March 2, 2022. Accessed March 4, 2022. https://ktla.com/news/california/california-among-states-launching-probe-into-tiktoks-effect-on-kids-health/
2. Kuntz L. Tourette or mass sociogenic disease? You decide. Psychiatric time. September 23, 2021. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/tourettes-or-mass-sociogenic-illness-you-decide