Adolescents, mental health, and TikTok use


At the 2022 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, Bradley Kerr, MS shared research on how adolescents really feel about TikTok when it comes to mental health support and peer comparison.

It is certainly no surprise to anyone that virtually all adolescents (97%) in the United States report use of social media. Of that group, over 60% report that they regularly use TikTok, and do so because of 2 significant features; they can easily scroll between the short videos (less than 1 minute); and the platform has a significantly large adolescent presence. Bradley Kerr, MS, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and part of the school’s Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT), shared some insights he and his collaborators gleaned, on both mental health benefits and risks for teenagers who use TikTok regularly.

To do so, SMAHRT created a focus group study using Zoom, with data collected in October and November 2021. Questions included:

--How is TikTok different from other social media platforms?

--What are the benefits of TikTok use, compared to other platforms?

--What parts of TikTok may be risky or bad for adolescents’ health?

--Do people your age ever appear to find TikTok “addicting” compared to other platforms?

Kerr then offered up a mélange of responses from the study. For example, one adolescent, in responding to risky trends with the platform, said, “There are a whole lot of…trends going around…that could definitely be like kind of pressuring or influential to somebody’s decision of how to behave and act, so they could potentially put them in risky positions.”

Challenges of self-regulating TikTok use were definitive: “You will get sucked in, so you can’t do it in public;” and “the videos are short, and it’s really convenient to use at…whatever time you need.” “I deleted TikTok…I just could not have that in my life…I wasn’t able to connect with my friends over some of the trends because they’re so…quick…that is the only platform that can move at that pace.”

Comparing yourself to your peers is of monumental importance to adolescents, and , in this case, it seems like TikTok can have a negative emotional impact: “there’s just so much content that can just constantly compare and see what you want, what you hate, and see the differences in people;” “I feel like it’s just another thing where we can see other people’s lives and quickly compare ourselves…for better or worse;” and ”with a lot of people you see on TikTok you get the perception…you’re supposed to act like them or look like them, which could bring about a lot of body image issues or self-confidence issues.”

When it came to being used as a support system for mental health issues, adolescents were mixed in their views. One noted a feeling of competition in who seemed “the worst off” emotionally: “A lot of people…normalize or…glorify struggles people have with mental health issues…I feel people kind of long for those issues, like ‘your issues aren’t as severe as mine.’”

The research team concluded that TikTok is a powerful platform for adolescents to connect with peers and interests, but it can have “addicting” qualities and seems to be associated with peer comparison. Supportiveness of TikTok for teenage mental health discussions, however, remain complex.

The brief study should be a catalyst for future studies, which, noted Kerr, should dig deeper into specific TikTok experiences and mental health outcomes; address the frequency and severity of challenges of self-regulating TikTok; and look at associations between TikTok peer comparison and those mental health outcomes. For pediatric health care providers, making social listening a part of your practice could help enrich your understanding of your adolescent patients.

Kerr B, Minich M, Moreno MA. Adolescent perspectives on mental health benefits and risks associated with TikTok use. PAS 2022. April 23, 2022. Denver, Colorado.

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