TikTok rolls out mental health resources for users as Instagram faces criticism
The resources include in-app guides that address topics such as "signs of struggling," "steps to create a connection," and advice about eating and body concerns, with an aim toward helping people who are dealing with mental health issues.
TikTok has further developed its search engine interventions, too. Search for words or phrases such as "suicide," and you'll be met with information for local support resources which offer guidance about treatment options. If you opt to view search results, you'll generally see supportive or educational content about suicide, rather than potentially dangerous TikToks.
"That's a great idea and really pretty much all that a platform can do, because other than that, we move into more extreme censorship of content and maybe even ... monetizing things that are intended to be helpful resources," said Mike C. Parent, a psychologist and associate professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
"It's important to talk about suicide and eating disorders and not remove that content," he added. Some people might think talking about suicide will make teens more inclined to try it, Parent said, but that's not always the case.
Pros and cons of the changes
Chicago-based psychologist John Duffy said via email that many of his young clients say they initially learn about depression, anxiety, attention problems and eating disorders on TikTok.
"That said, these changes are not nearly enough," Duffy added. Kids often rely on TikTok content to diagnose and treat themselves, which can be dangerous without adult supervision. "It is crucial that TikTok makes it clear that their platform is not a substitute for direct mental health care." At the bottom of its "Well-Being Guide," TikTok states the guides are for informational and educational purposes only and aren't "intended to provide mental health or medical services."
Plus, the guides -- which were created with the help of expert organizations including Crisis Text Line, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, Live for Tomorrow, Samaritans of Singapore, Samaritans (UK) and the National Eating Disorders Association -- exist in TikTok's Safety Center. To access them, users can go to their profile, click the menu icon in the upper right corner, then scroll down to the "Support" section, where they can click "Safety Center."
"The general thing with user experience is that everything important should be one click or less away from the user," Parent said. "Putting it multiple clicks away does form a barrier."
TikTok already had warning labels and opt-in screens over videos with sensitive or distressing content. The company is expanding on that by applying the warnings to search results as well, for phrases such as "scary make-up."
Offering trigger warnings is polite in certain settings, but research has shown trigger warnings can be a double-edged sword -- in that people sometimes might increasingly incorporate trauma into their identity rather than viewing triggering content as something to process to become healthier, Parent said.
"It ends up maybe what, in psychology, we would call a safety behavior, which sounds nice, but it's actually unhealthy," Parent said. "It's sort of like a person who's afraid of spiders and you never ever show them a photo of spiders -- well, they're never not going to be afraid of spiders."
Advice for parents and teens
Having open communication with teens before problems arise is important, Parent said. If parents suspect their teens' social media use is harming their mental health, don't punish them, he added -- instead, enlist a mental health professional who can mediate those conversations in ways that might better resonate with kids.
Also, remember that problematic social media use related to issues such as body image can be more a symptom than the cause of the teen's issue, according to Parent.
"Body image concerns existed long before social media. And we now live in an era where you can go on social media and find images of people as models who you never would have seen before," Parent said. "Before, it was a bunch of White people and maybe Tyra Banks, and they were all skinny and all looked a particular way."
Parents should familiarize themselves with social media platforms, especially the mental health-related elements, and regularly talk openly with their teens about what they're witnessing, Duffy said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied there was only one way through which TikTok users could access the app's well-being guides. At the time of publication there was at least one other way. We have clarified the language to instruct users on the most consistent way users can access the guides.