TikTok diagnostic videos let some teens think they have a rare mental disorder

Many videos were from teens or young adults who said they had these diagnoses. Others were from people claiming to be therapists. They often mention signs they think could be symptoms of these conditions and encourage viewers to do their own self-report.

Ms Fridley, a high school student from Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., was diagnosed with anxiety and depression at the age of 10. She recognized herself in descriptions of the disorders and became convinced at various times that she had all of them. Other teens I have spoken to have said the same thing.

TikTok videos containing the hashtag #borderlinepersonalitydisorder have been viewed almost 600 million times. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit mental health advocacy organization, it is estimated that only 1.4% of the American adult population suffers from this disorder. Borderline personality disorder is almost never diagnosed in adolescents because their personalities are always forming and because certain symptoms, such as unstable personal relationships and impulsive behavior, are difficult to distinguish from typical adolescent behavior, according to the doctors.

Multiple personality disorder (aka dissociative identity) is even rarer, affecting less than 1% of the population, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Videos containing the hashtag #dissociativeidentitydisorder have been viewed over 700 million times on TikTok. Many videos feature teenagers and young adults who seem to switch from one personality to another.

When teens watch TikTok videos and decide they have a mental health issue, even though they are only actually suffering from their teenage years, it can pose a problem with treatment and lead to frayed family relationships. Psychologists say there are things parents should and shouldn’t do when confronting their self-diagnosed teenager, which I’ll discuss below. For its part, TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., is implementing changes that could minimize single-topic video feeds.

“A social currency”

“It can be tricky when there is a strong adherence to a particular diagnosis,” said Bre-Ann Slay, clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Missouri. TikTok videos that de-stigmatize mental illness and cause some teens to seek help can be positive, she added, but only up to a point.

Last summer, in an inpatient child psychiatric facility, Dr Slay began seeing several patients a week who were self-diagnosing. When they mentioned that they were learning the terms on TikTok, Dr Slay set up a TikTok account to understand what they were watching.

“What shocked me the most is the number of videos on multiple personality disorder due to its rarity,” she said.

She and other doctors across the country say they’re seeing more and more teens coming in with TikTok-derived self-diagnoses. The video platform has surpassed Instagram in popularity among teens this year, according to a recent report from Forrester Research Inc., a market research company. This year, 63% of young Americans aged 12 to 17 used TikTok every week, up from 50% in 2020. The percentage of kids in that age group who used Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram every week fell to 57%. . against 61% in 2020.

“We have to get these kids to release their self-diagnoses, but when they leave, they go straight back to this TikTok community that reinforces their beliefs,” said Don Grant, executive director of outpatient services at Newport Healthcare’s Adolescent Treatment Center. in Santa Monica. , California. He didn’t keep a tally of teens who use TikTok for self-diagnosis, but said it was important.

Dr Grant, who chairs an American Psychological Association committee that develops advice for psychologists and the public on the use of devices and social media, explained that being saturated with negative content can alter brain chemistry. , moving wellness neurotransmitters with stress hormones. .

“What is happening is that adrenaline and cortisol are flooding your brain, and dopamine and serotonin are leaving the building,” he said.

Some therapists use TikTok to fight misinformation about mental health issues. Evan Lieberman, clinical social worker in Minneapolis, has amassed over a million subscribers on TikTok; in some videos he mocks any self-diagnostic questions he receives.

“Despite the importance of the new awareness of adolescent mental health, there appears to be a tendency to use mental health diagnoses as social currency,” he said.

Algorithm

Ms Fridley, the high school student, said she had not searched for videos on mental health diagnoses. After she started following mental health advocacy accounts on TikTok, she said, the social media app started posting videos about various disorders.

Ms Fridley, who has also followed K-pop stars and comedy stories, said her For You page was overrun with videos about mental health issues. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation showed that TikTok’s algorithm picks up subtle cues from users, such as how long they linger on a video, and then shows them more and more of the same content.

Many teens have said that constant TikTok videos of extreme dieting and exercise contributed to eating disorders. Others developed physical tics after watching video feeds from influencers who said they had Gilles de la Tourette syndrome.

TikTok said earlier this month it was testing changes to its algorithm to steer viewers away from too much of one type of content. Currently, TikTok users can select “not interested” on a video if they don’t want to watch more videos from a particular creator. The creator of the app said he’s also working on a new feature that would allow people to choose words or hashtags associated with content they don’t want in their feeds.

“We care deeply about the well-being of our community, which is why we continue to invest in digital literacy education aimed at helping people assess and understand the content with which they interact online.” , said a spokeswoman for TikTok. “We strongly encourage individuals to seek professional medical advice if they need assistance.”

“It really took my mind”

Over the course of a year, Ms Fridley thought she had a different diagnosis every two weeks. She wrote them down in her journal, told her parents about them, and brought them up in weekly sessions with her therapist.

Her father, John Fridley, was skeptical about the progress of her self-diagnosis, but said the family had been careful not to fire her.

“We had the impression for a long time that we were in competition with social media,” Mr. Fridley said. “For any child with mental health issues, being alone in their bedroom with their thoughts and with TikTok is a dangerous combination.”

In April, Ms Fridley, now 18, entered a residential treatment program at Newport Academy in Virginia for her anxiety and depression. She said conditions worsened during the pandemic, as she attended distance school and watched TikTok a lot.

“It really took my mind off,” she said.

The therapist Ms. Fridley saw in Newport explained to her that relating to certain symptoms of a disorder does not qualify someone for a diagnosis. Ms Fridley said she had come to accept that the only conditions she suffered from were depression and anxiety.

Having a break from social media during her 54 days on the Device-Free Home Program helped.

“It was the best feeling not having my phone with me,” she said.

Before her release in May, Ms Fridley, her family and her therapist agreed on the rules to be followed at home. Ms Fridley suggested that she not use her phone for three months. She eventually started watching TikTok again, but reduced her time on the app and clicked “not interested” on the mental health diagnostics videos. She said it took about a month for the mental health videos to disappear completely.

What you can do

If your child comes to you with a self-diagnosis, there are some things healthcare professionals say you should and shouldn’t do.

Listen. Therapists say it’s best not to dismiss what your child has to say or show their emotions right away, as this can lead to children shutting down. Dr Slay suggests asking the children why they think they have a certain illness and if they would like to tell someone about it. Sometimes the queries will pass, but if a child continues to talk about a diagnosis, making an appointment with a professional can help.

Take a break. Sometimes just stepping away from social media for a while, like Ms. Fridley did, can open up a new perspective.

Restart. Dr Grant said some of his teenage patients deleted their TikTok accounts and started over with new ones because their feeds were saturated with negative content. Starting over and consciously choosing positive content can help.

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