These videos are portrayed as wellness content, often advertising a “healthy lifestyle.” They can spark unhealthy comparison under the veil of inspiration, whether it be appearance or lifestyle related. In reality, teens may eat less or excessively work out in order to achieve a particular body type. In the process, they lose their sense of self, fuel their insecurities and develop disordered eating habits.
In a survey of 10 teens aged 15-17, 100% reported some sort of self-conducted comparison to people on the app, with 70% of them classifying it as a frequent occurrence. The survey also shows that 90% of this comparison has sparked feelings of self consciousness, depression and/or anxiety.
When asked what aspect they think specifically depletes their mental health, an anonymous participant said, “It’s a literal constant stream of videos telling you all the ways your life could be ‘better.’ It makes you feel like everything you do is never enough.”
Although teens think TikTok may be the most harmful social media platform, therapists and psychologists disagree. Instagram perpetuates additional issues due to the fact that users can alter their public image. Regardless, this is nothing new. Media has shaped the body standard for decades. Therapists and psychologists also harp on the benefits of social media platforms, as they often provide community to those struggling.
A therapist’s perspective:
Although TikTok worsens teens’ mental health, body image issues and eating disorders, therapist Kate Behzadi views Instagram as a more pressing issue.
She reasoned that Instagram users have the ability to retouch, edit and even photoshop pictures before posting them, unlike TikTok. This can be detrimental to body image and eating disorder issues with teens, triggering unrealistic comparison.
“Even if logically, you know that somebody is posing at a certain angle, or they’ve used filters, or they’ve retouched their photos, it’s still hard not to compare and think, ‘Okay, that’s what I need to look like,’” she said.
On TikTok, users see a more realistic view into people’s lives. This can bring a community together over the relatability of life, issues and other struggles.
“I think that TikTok, in comparison to Instagram, at least the algorithm I’m on, a lot of the videos are more about showing real life,” Behzadi said. “It’s a lot about people kind of showing things that everybody experiences but don’t necessarily talk about a lot.”
Behzadi also acknowledged the algorithms of each app– a central issue when considering social media’s effects on mental health. On Instagram, there is minimal filtering of harmful content.
“It’s human nature to pay more attention to the negative comments, to look longer at things that make us feel bad. So we’re looking longer at photos of some girl that we think is the ideal body standard,” she said. “Then we get fed those photos even more.”
On the contrary, she explained that TikTok has done a good job of filtering negative content. For example, if you look up #thinspo or #eatingdisorder, the app will redirect you to resources that can help you. Videos under these hashtags will have been taken down as well.
However, creators get around these censored hashtags by replacing one or more of the letters with different characters. For example, people use #eatingdosorder or #edrecocery on their videos. Therefore, harmful content will continue to persist, and teens’ algorithms will adapt.
As for body content, TikTok has more diversity.
“I think TikTok is more balanced out by this other content as well, that is like, ‘this is what real bodies look like,’ and people talking about body positivity,” she said.
Unlike Instagram, these real experiences that people share on TikTok create a more accepting atmosphere on social media. Everyone receives attention and positive feedback, regardless of their shape and size, Behzadi said.
“I’ve actually found a positive effect from TikTok. A lot of my clients will send me TikToks that remind them of something that we’ve been talking about,” she said.
A psychologist’s perspective:
Regardless of the social platform, media inevitably perpetuates mental health issues in adolescents.
UCLA researcher, Yalda Uhls, studies how media affects the social behavior of tweens and teens. Although research does not show that it causes mental health issues, she has found it prolongs pre-existing ones.
“If someone has underlying conditions, if someone has anxiety, if they have a home life that isn’t great, or they don’t sleep a lot, or they are being bullied, then social media can be an amplifier,” Uhls said. “It can make pre-existing conditions worse.”
Although she hasn’t done specific research on TikTok, Uhls acknowledged that media in general has an effect on teen body image issues.
“Body image is a huge issue for young people. Particularly platforms like Instagram that are very very visual and commercial,” she said. “They may be perpetuating stereotypes of model thin being the ideal.”
However, she explained that this is nothing new. Media consistently remains a factor when considering the beauty standards throughout history. When social media didn’t exist, this came through magazines, catalogs and television.
Similarly to Behzadi, Uhls mentioned the many positive aspects of media. She explained that teens suffering from depression may use social media as a tool to connect with their friends, instead of going out. Similarly, if teens feel alone in general, they can create a community online.
“For kids that are in marginalized communities, let’s say they’re queer and they live in a place where they don’t feel comfortable talking about it, it can help provide them an online community,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic, social media was a way to connect with my friends and family. Uhls said that without social media during quarantine, the overall mental health of adolescents would have been much worse.
What can we do about it?
Many influencers use their platform to promote taking breaks from one’s phone and TikTok in particular.
However, simply putting the phone down isn’t all that easy. Making sharp cuts to your screen time seems pretty unrealistic if you are as obsessed as teens today. Instead, teens should start setting small goals for themselves.
For example, setting screen time restrictions for social media apps, not using your phone for a one hour chunk of time or setting a goal to journal upon waking up rather than hopping on TikTok.
Behzadi also advises teens to set intentions when they use social media. She wants them to notice how it makes them feel in the moment, rather than indulging in the satisfaction boost.
“Set an intention when you open Instagram,” she said. “If there’s something that makes you feel bad consistently, unfollow.”
She also acknowledged that social media serves as an easy coping mechanism. Behzadi encourages teens to find healthier ways to cope rather than choosing the easy way out.
“I think about social media platforms as basically just endless mirrors,” Behzadi said. “It’s going to have the same impact that forces you to care too much about what other people are doing, what they think about you and what they think about what you’re doing.”