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October 10, 2023

New TikTok feature aims to give users credible information on mental health

People who search for anxiety, depression and other conditions will be directed to the National Institute of Mental Health or the Cleveland Clinic

TikTok and other social media platforms have become hotbeds of medical misinformation, in some cases leading people to make inaccurate self-diagnoses or promoting fads that are not backed by science. 

To mitigate this issue, TikTok has teamed up with the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institute of Mental Health to provide credible information when users search for information on 40 mental health and neurological conditions, including depression, anxiety, trauma and autism. Users now will be given the option to visit these organizations' websites instead of relying on videos from other users for medical advice, though those videos will still appear in TikTok's search results.

"When it comes to researching health care information, it is important to get the facts," said Dr. Leo Ponzuelo, chairman of psychology and psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic. "Mental health has been a growing issue, and we know there has been an increase in online searches around this area, especially among young people. Therefore, it's important that people have access to credible health information on a variety of platforms, including TikTok." 

TikTok's popularity shot up by 180% among people ages 15 to 25 during early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the number of adults reporting anxiety or depressive symptoms increased fourfold. Health experts found that, with the country on lockdown, young people turned to social media platforms for a sense of community. 

Videos using TikTok's mental health hashtag have more than 109 billion views. The webpage includes a disclaimer about the importance of reaching out to health professionals when experiencing mental health concerns, but there are millions of videos below it. Topics range from personal experiences with mental illness to tips for finding a therapist or psychiatrist. 

There are benefits to having health information accessible via a quick Google search, or being shared on social media, according to experts at Penn Medicine. But the catch is that people can misinterpret it and inaccurately diagnose or improperly treat themselves. Plus, people also can post –  and share – misinformation.

TikTok is not the only social media company that has worked to combat medical misinformation. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, began adding labels to posts with information about COVID-19 vaccines, removing inaccurate information and amplifying information with credible sources. These changes were made in response to recommendations issued by the U.S. Surgeon General in early 2021. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory that called social media one of the drivers of the youth mental health crisis. Rates of anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and suicide have all been rising among young Americans. 

About 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 use some form of social media, including about one-third who report being on the platforms "almost constantly," according to the Pew Research Center. The most common social media platforms used by teenagers are TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Older users are more likely to use Facebook, Reddit and X, formerly Twitter. 

Research suggests that frequent social media use may be linked to changes in the developing brain related to emotional learning and behavior, impulse control and moderating social conduct. Social media use has been linked to decreased life satisfaction among girls ages 11 to 13 and boys ages 14 to 15. One long-term study found that youth who spent more than three hours daily on social media were twice as likely to develop depression and anxiety.

"A lot of teens describe the experience of going on TikTok and intending to spend 15 minutes and then they spend two hours or more," Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told CNN earlier this year. "That's problematic because the more time a teen spends on social media, the more likely he or she is to be depressed. And that's particularly true for (teens) at the extremes of use." 

Parents can help counter misinformation by discussing mental health with teenagers, Psychology Today reported. Using a non-judgmental approach fosters curiosity about what teens are seeing online and how it affects their moods or behaviors. 

Asking teenagers about the sources of their mental health information, monitoring the way they use social media platforms and offering to help them seek mental health care can help resolve mental health concerns and ensure that they have access to credible sources of medical information, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

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