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Is Every Post About Mental Health on Social Media Misleading and Damaging?
Answer: Seems so
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The Ped Mall—a brick pedestrian thoroughfare in the center of Iowa City. That’s where I spent nearly all my time during one of my worst psychiatric crises. Students walked by me as I sat on a bench, trying not to cry or succumb to panic and mania, depending. (Yes, outside, even in the cold, though not the rain. I had to draw a line somewhere.)
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have had a smartphone in my pocket (I still had a flip phone) and social media to scroll. (During the twenty-five years that I was ill, social media either wasn’t around, or I wasn’t on it.) It would have made things much, much worse. As someone who truly enjoys solitude and who has a fierce independent streak, I’m not the find-community type, so all social media likely would have offered me was misinformation. (Now, it offers me endless cat videos.) Whenever I was in pain, I searched for reasons why I was in pain and for relief from it. It’s a natural instinct but not always the most productive one in an age when the majority of the information we’re getting about mental illness on social media is wrong at best and damaging at worst.
This may seem obvious—yes, yes, social media and the internet and misinformation—but it hits home when you see the data graphically laid out. The telemedicine company PlushCare conducted a study to assess how reliable the mental health advice found on TikTok is. The study wasn’t peer-reviewed, so it’s in the popular science category, but its methodology seems sound.
PlushCare’s staff pulled five hundred videos with #mentalhealthtips and #mentalhealthadvice from TikTok. Members of the company’s medical team analyzed the videos, rating the qualifications of the person who posted the video, the quality of the advice, the accuracy of the information, and to what degree the video encouraged self-diagnosis.
First, it found that a whole lot of people are getting their information about mental health from TikTok:
Then there’s the inaccuracy of that information: 83 percent of mental health advice on TikTok is misleading, and 14 percent of videos include content that could be potentially damaging.
ADHD contained the most misleading information. Of the videos examined, 100 percent gave misleading advice about the disorder. Yes, 100 percent.
Bipolar disorder topped out at 94 percent and depression at 90 percent.
And the people posting all this information? Only 9 percent of TikTokers advising on the platform had a relevant qualification, with the remaining 91 percent lacking the medical training to support those with challenges.
A separate 2022 peer-reviewed study looked at user-generated content about ADHD on TikTok. This study found that 52 percent was misleading, and 27 percent was based entirely on personal experience, not expert advice. Dr. Anthony Yeung, the lead author of the study and a member of the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, said that social media algorithms, which are designed to flood your feed with similar content, increase the spread of misinformation. Essentially, you become trapped in a silo of misinformation.
Though we can be misled on social media, it’s fair to say that young people—whose brains haven’t fully formed—are most at risk. Gen Z’s use TikTok the way the rest of us use Google. That’s right, as an information-gathering resource not unlike the library.
The Seattle public school district just filed a lawsuit against tech companies Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat), Google (YouTube), and ByteDance (TikTok). The lawsuit blames social media companies for the worsening mental health of children and teens. Meta, Google, and ByteDance are accused of targeting and exploiting the psychology and neurophysiology of young users (you think?) in such a way that has led to rising rates of self-harm, suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and cyberbullying: “[They] have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms.” Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) is well aware of the damage its platforms cause young people. Here are quotes from internal documents The Wall Street Journal exposed:
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Tech companies are in no way liable for or required to vet any information on their platforms.
It’s no secret to young people either. The British nonprofit Youth Health Movement polled 1500 adolescents (ages 10-24) about the damage social media can cause:
If teens feel this way, adults probably do too. And if social media companies are manipulating teens, they’re manipulating all of us.
Does this mean we shouldn’t get information about mental illness, psychiatric diagnoses, or mental health (whatever that is) from social media or from anyone who gets mental health information from social media?
That’s one way to do it.
The Washington Post offers ways to vet the many social media influencers doling out advice about mental illness and psychiatric diagnoses. Unfortunately, the Post article offers pretty rudimentary and unrealistic suggestions.
Check the creator’s/influencer’s qualifications.
Research outside of social media.
Compare what the influencer/creator is saying to that of other influencers/creators.
Be wary if the advice is general, emphasizes diagnoses, or is selling a treatment.
Well, right, but how many young people or any of us are going to bother to verify the creator’s/influencer’s credentials or fact-check what they’ve said or cross-reference their content or notice who’s selling what when we’re just scrolling to numb out?
Ultimately, we have three choices:
don’t trust anything about mental illness or mental health on social media,
go to sites that offer accurate information, or
follow only cat videos.
I say do all three.
Read the exclusive publication of Cured: The Memoir for free through 2023. The premise of Cured is simple: recovery from mental illness, even serious mental illness, is possible.