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Mental Health Week: The TikTok effect

Posted on the 17th May 2023


With more than 1 billion users worldwide, the video-sharing app TikTok has undergone an exponential rise in popularity.

However, concerns have been raised over its impact on users who are struggling with mental health issues.

According to a first-of-its-kind study from University of Minnesota Twin Cities computer science researchers, the app is uniquely positioned among social media platforms as both a help and a hindrance when it comes to mental health.

Research presented in the proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems has emphasised that the video-sharing platform provides users with a sense of self-discovery and community.

However, through extensive interviews with TikTok users, the UoM team also found that the app’s algorithm also displayed a tendency to repeatedly expose users to content that could be harmful to their mental health.

Unlike other social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, which primarily show posts from accounts that users choose to follow, TikTok is primarily run by a recommender system algorithm that creates tailored a tailored 'For You Page' comprised of videos it thinks individual users will enjoy.

Researchers have expressed concern that this algorithm can lead viewers down a rabbit hole of negative content, from which there is 'no escape'. While the TikTok interface does offer a 'Not interested' button, study participants said this made little difference to the content that appears in their feeds.

A number of interviewees reported feeling obliged to take breaks or quit the site entirely, due to the toll it took on their mental wellbeing.

Research participants also reported difficulty in discerning whether mental health-related videos on the site were sincere, or whether content creators exaggerated or exploited emotional or mental problems in a bid to gain more likes, comments, and followers.

Ashlee Milton, the paper's lead author, emphasised TikTok's potential for providing a sense of community for those suffering from poor mental health.

“People tend to gravitate toward social media to find information and other people who are going through similar situations. A lot of our participants talked about how helpful this mental health information was.

“But at some point, because of the way the feed works, it’s just going to keep giving you more and more of the same content. And that’s when it can go from being helpful to being distressing and triggering.”

The study is the first in a series of papers the UoM team is planning on the intersection between social media and mental health.

Stevie Chancellor, senior author and assistant professor in the UoM Department of Computer Science & Engineering, stressed that the app isn’t intrinsically dangerous, but hopes that understanding how social media promotes harmful behaviours will facilitate the design of strategies that mitigate poor mental health outcomes. “The first step in this process is interviewing people to make sure we understand their experiences on TikTok. We need insights from people before we as computer scientists go in and design to fix this problem.”

Related: New study reveals health impact of social media use

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