Internet developers are therapists for millions. It’s difficult.
That’s not always a bad thing, experts say. There is a lot of mental health content Producers are licensed therapists, social workers, or physicians with in-depth clinical experience. Others share their own mental health journeys helping listeners feel less alone.
But health information on social media can quickly go sideways. Since mental health content gets a lot of attention, producers may use it to increase their visibility. Some fans present fringe theories as to whether their symptoms are true or false. And the more you engage with this type of content, the more social media posts you’ll be exposed to, which is easy to mess up.
Mental health is important, as is the information you consume. Here are six simple questions to help you decide if a part of the internet is helpful and trustworthy.
Becoming a health care or social work professional doesn’t necessarily make you a mental health professional – but it’s not without pain.
True creators should list their characters in their bios so that the audience knows what they are like, says Kali Hobson, an adult and child psychologist who creates TikToks with the handle @ drkalimd. Licensed therapists, counselors, social workers, nurses and doctors are more likely to share honest health information.
Some producers aren’t mental health professionals, and it’s best if they’re honest about their symptoms and avoid giving medical advice, says Christine Gibson, a doctor-turned-trauma therapist who make TikToks with the handle @tiktoktraumadoc. Make sure creators aren’t presenting themselves as experts when they’re actually enthusiasts, he said. Beware of ambiguous titles such as “teacher” and “expert” that do not fully understand the person’s training.
Can you find research on the topic?
If you’re interested in a mental health topic, do some research outside of social media, says Hobson.
Google Scholar is a search engine for academic research. When I typed in “treating anxiety and depression,” for example, the top results included research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of mindfulness, mental health applications, and acupuncture. Click on a study and read the section labeled “research” for a summary of its findings. The National Institute of Mental Health also has fact sheets on mental health problems.
Psychological research does not always reflect human experience. For most of the history of the field, researchers and academics have been very sophisticated and male, says Leandro Olszanski, a licensed consultant who creates TikToks with the handle @tu.terapeuta.en.tiktok. That means women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community don’t see their experiences reflected, said Jennie “Toli” Gintoli, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who creates TikToks in handle @quirky.queer.therapist.
If you’re worried that researchers and experts won’t understand your experiences — don’t delay your fact-finding mission, Gintoli says. Today, diverse professionals are working to fill the gaps in our understanding of mental health. Find a community center or student organization in your area, send an email to a licensed professional who shares your identity, find an online community that can point you to international resources.
The apps offer teens one-step settings to help them stay safer online. Here’s a crash course.
How is your body?
Just like some people in the real world you have a hard time after you post, social media posts can make you feel worse than before.
As you scroll, check with your body, Gibson said. Are you calm and focused on the message of the video? Are you anxious, irritable, or relaxed? These signs indicate to us that there is no help. If your body or brain is tired and you’re scrambling for some kind of “fix,” it’s time to step away, he said.
The information should be valid, helpful, and encouraging – not expectant, angry, or cynical.
Who else is talking about it?
If a concept — like pain, addiction or meditation — jumps out at you, type it into the search bar and see what other creators have to say, Gintoli says. Are most of the other videos from licensed professionals, or is the topic really popular among the uninitiated? See also the comments section. Do many mental health professionals disagree with the video’s claims?
Does it expand or enhance the analysis on the indicators?
Social media is not a place to scrutinize yourself or others, says Gintoli. If you suffer from chronic pain, for example, your ex may feel good about clinical narcissism now, but it won’t fix the pain and betrayal.
Sometimes, patients come to Gintoli worried they may have an illness after seeing a post on social media, he said. Instead of focusing on the diagnosis, he helps to understand their symptoms and how to fix them.
Not everyone experiences mental illness in the same way. If creators mention specific characters, traits, or emotions as if they were true for everyone as being unique, that’s a red flag, Hobson says. For example, a video listing “symptoms of dissociative identity disorder” may be appropriate for one creator, but may be different for others. The same goes for treatment – what works for one person may not work for another.
If the creator is tracking the person online, unfollow them. And remember that this means that there is no diagnosis that you are broken or that you are no longer able to live comfortably.
“I try to make it clear to my clients and the general public, just because you meet the criteria for a disease, it doesn’t mean that it’s part of your identity or that you still meet the criteria for death,” Olszanski said.
Suspect a treatment?
The lines between social media and “real life” aren’t always as clear as we think. Social media can play a real role in our journey to better mental health, but it can’t replace the kind of one-on-one treatment you get from a therapist, Gintoli said.
If you’re concerned about finding a therapist who understands your background and experiences, use the search tools from Psychology Today, InclusiveTherapists.com, or InnoPsych to filter based on your needs.
Either way, find someone you can turn to when you’re feeling down.
“Maybe not the parent. Maybe not a therapist. Maybe a friend. Maybe someone you met on Discord,” said Gintoli. “TikTok is not a cure. However, I have made friends on TikTok.
TikTok said it supports people who share their life journeys and eliminates misinformation.