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Social Media: A Vessel for Mental Health Misinformation

When faced with a problem, most of us turn to search engines like Google to find answers. With a world of information at our fingertips, searching up our symptoms when we’re feeling unwell has become a natural next step. If you have an unusually bad headache, or stomach pains that you haven’t had before, a quick search on Google will bring up hundreds of different diagnoses and potential treatments. Some of us may even know that dreaded feeling of scrolling and self-diagnosing the worst-case scenario.

Previously, you had to read a book or see a doctor to find physical or mental health information. Now, we have all this information from a quick search on Google and even social media sites, like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 1 in 6 members of Gen Z use TikTok as a search engine. The short, easy to understand and digest videos capture the attention of users and deliver information in bite-sized pieces. The search function allows you to identify all videos tagged with your search, and automatically, the platform will fill your feed with related videos. As of early 2023, over 67 billion searches for “mental health” were made on TikTok.

Many users on TikTok, and other platforms, are using the space to talk openly about their own mental health challenges, which can be helpful in reducing stigma and finding others who struggle in the same ways that you do. But there are dangers in turning to social media and unlicensed professionals for advice about identifying and treating mental health disorders.

A study done by the Center for Countering Digital Hate focused on the prevalence of harmful content pushed onto the “For You” pages of youth who search and “like” mental health videos. In this study, the accounts were given usernames related to body image, and they found that there was harmful and/or inaccurate content appearing on the page with an average of every 39 seconds of scrolling and engaging with content. Some users even landed on content that spoke about suicide within 2.6 minutes of joining on the app. Another study done by The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry evaluated popular TikTok Videos about ADHD, and they discovered that 52% of the most popular videos were misleading or contained direct misinformation about the diagnosis and treatment. Many content creators speak about their own experiences with mental health, or with parenting, from a personal perspective. Where this can be helpful in finding community, it can be harmful when these creators are peddling strategies that are not supported by research or would not be typically recommended by a professional.  This kind of content can also encourage self-diagnosing, which can be dangerous for kids and teens in developing stages of identity formation. The nuances of diagnoses, and what to do with that information, cannot be clearly and responsibly conveyed in social media posts. Seeking out the assistance of a licensed provider is imperative for accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

This risk of misinformation on mental health via popular media sites comes at a critical time for our youth, and for ourselves. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continuing to see a crisis in mental health for our kids and adolescents. TikTok, and other platforms, are the sites that we see our kids and teens turning to for help. Information and advice are only a click away and doing an anonymous search may feel much easier than confiding in friends and family about difficult feelings.

With so much information out there coming from a wide variety of sources, it is important to be diligent in checking for reputable sources of information. Here are some ways you can help counteract harmful or misleading content that you and your family may be seeing online.

  1. Avoid putting too much weight on messages coming from unlicensed professionals who diagnose general symptoms and prescribe uniform solutions based on those symptoms. Diagnosing mental health conditions requires a thorough evaluation and careful consideration of all present symptoms for each individual person.  For example, you may want to take videos with a grain of salt if they say, “You may have ADHD if you have these 3 symptoms.” Instead, seek out a professional evaluation if you are concerned.
  2. Check for reputable credentials when considering the accuracy of a post. There are many influencers out there who are not licensed psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, or social workers. Before taking an influencer’s word as truth, check their bio for their qualifications.
  3. Help your child manage their account feeds and steer them away from harmful or misinformed content. Most social media platforms use an algorithm to determine what content to provide on the “For You” or “Discover” pages. Help your child to interact with appropriate accounts and content by “liking” those posts and spending time on them. If you know that a certain account or post is harmful, you can also report them and that will result in a removal of the content from their feed.
  4. Encourage open communication about social media and mental health. Have a conversation with your family to encourage them to open up to you if they’re seeing concerning things online. Making sure that your kids know you are a safe person to go to will help them to be honest and approach you with concerns. If your kids express concern about their mental health, take this concern seriously and talk to them about the option of getting a formal assessment.
  5. Seek out an assessment and treatment from a clinician. If your kid is seeking mental health information out online and it is taking up a big part of their online life, it is likely that they might need some support from a trusted clinician. Searching for mental health information might be a warning sign that your child is struggling. Don’t wait until problems are getting in the way but reach out early and often. You and your kid will feel better about getting a professional’s evaluation and recommendations for how to best address the challenges they are facing.

Want to learn more?

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