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The TikTok Trap: The Hidden Harm in Virtual Support Communities

Authored by Lamisa Nubayaat

Art by Phoebe Ahn


I have to! Because if I don’t, that means that all the damage I got isn’t good damage. It’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it, and all those years I was miserable for nothing.” 


If you have been on TikTok recently, these words may sound familiar. They are the words to a viral audio with over 21.8k videos [1] from the popular comedy cartoon, Bojak Horseman. Under this sound, there are hundreds of videos of young people talking about their hardships and how those have led them to their current path. They share a common theme of channeling the pain from your past to motivate yourself to be better. 


At first glance, the harmful undertones of this message may not be obvious. But the character goes on to express that she always believed her suffering made her special, somehow ‘above’ those who do not have similar experiences. When examined closely, this audio and similar trends romanticize mental illness and trauma by painting them as desirable and making it seem like there is something beautiful and empowering about having them. These videos are part of a majority of well-intentioned, destigmatizing content that may actually be promoting dangerous mental illnesses to adolescents.


TikTok has grown to be extremely popular among young people, as approximately two-thirds of American teenagers currently use the app [2]. Due to this large community and ease of access, the app has become a platform to discuss issues faced by youth, most notably mental illness. Hashtags such as #MentalHealth and #MentalHealthAwareness have amassed 99.7 billion views [1], collectively, and feature videos of people discussing their journeys with certain conditions, symptoms lists, and rant style videos. These videos promote healthy discussions about taboo and stigmatized topics in our society. They also serve as a way for young people to find support, community, and advice when they feel alone. While the benefits are undeniable, these videos are equally, if not, more harmful to the vulnerable adolescents consuming them.


The primary ramification is that these videos often go beyond just normalizing mental illness and instead, turn into admiration and desire. Creators make videos of themselves crying, with beautiful music in the background or show aesthetic images while talking about deep, distressing issues. These sorts of videos lead viewers to view debilitating conditions as something beautiful. It is extremely dangerous for teens to be exposed to media that makes something so painful look so attractive [3]. 


Videos describing symptoms of a disorder are particularly common [4] and are detrimental for a number of reasons. Because the majority of these videos are not created by experts, they are often misleading or factually incorrect [5]. Simplified lists and generic descriptions of mental illnesses can also lead teens to erroneous self-diagnosing of serious, and often rare, conditions because they are misled into identifying with them [6, 7]. Teens may begin acting as if they have certain conditions by adopting those symptoms and behaviors [8]. Glamorized portrayals of mental illnesses make viewers believe possessing these traits will make them seem more interesting. A recent rise in teenage girls presenting with tics, a symptom of a rare neurological disorder, Tourette syndrome, is just one example of this phenomenon. This mysterious increase has been attributed to the large number of Tourettes and tic related videos on the app [5]. 


Furthermore, these communities often casually discuss extremely sensitive topics, such as suicide and self-harm. This can lead young, impressionable kids to become curious or interested in these actions, leading to dangerous outcomes. It may also persuade those who are genuinely suffering from these intense emotions to believe that these feelings are normal and, thus, not seek additional help [8]. 


This content is not only harmful to viewers but also to creators. Co-rumination is the process of focusing on negative emotions by frequently discussing one’s problems with friends. Studies have found that co-rumination can be linked to an increase in depressive symptoms because it results in friendship groups becoming solely focused on negative emotions, as those topics are constantly being revisited [9]. The mental health side of TikTok is beginning to operate as a “virtual co-ruminating space” [10]. By talking excessively about problems they are facing, creators and viewers are maintaining a relationship based on negative emotions. This reinforces those emotions and worsens the depressive symptoms of all the people involved, effectively preventing healing. For instance, many creators have developed a strong fan base due to their “sad” content and may actively prevent themselves from discussing neutral or positive events and emotions on their accounts for fear of betraying the image their fans know of them. This puts these creators at risk of worsening their own mental illnesses by consistently over-emphasizing their negative feelings and disrupting their healing journey.


These virtual TikTok communities have undoubtedly helped many adolescents through dark times, as well as made our generation more open about previously sensitive topics. However, this content is not flawless and has repeatedly romanticized mental illness. Therefore, it is essential to be constantly critical of the media we are consuming and creating, in order to promote a more nuanced understanding of this content and prevent harm to ourselves and vulnerable populations.


Works Cited

  1. TikTok (Version 19.9.0) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://www.tiktok.com/ (accessed April 24, 2023).


  1. Anderson, M., Vogels, E., & Perrin, A. (2022, August 10). Teens, social media, and technology 2022. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/.


  1. Shrestha, A. (2018). Echo: the Romanticization of Mental Illness on Tumblr. Undergraduate Research Journal of Psychology at UCLA, 5. https://urjp.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/76/2018/06/URJP_2018.pdf


  1. Basch, C. H., Donelle, L., Fera, J., & Jaime, C. (2022). Deconstructing TikTok Videos on Mental Health: Cross-sectional, Descriptive Content Analysis. JMIR formative research, 6(5), e38340. https://doi.org/10.2196/38340


  1. Frey, J., Black, K. J., & Malaty, I. A. (2022). TikTok Tourette's: Are We Witnessing a Rise in Functional Tic-Like Behavior Driven by Adolescent Social Media Use?. Psychology research and behavior management, 15, 3575–3585. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S359977


  1. Caron, C. (2022, October 29). Teens Turn to TikTok in Search of a Mental Health Diagnosis. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/29/well/mind/tiktok-mental-illness-diagnosis.html


  1. Chan, D., & Sireling, L. (2010). ‘I want to be bipolar’…a new phenomenon. The Psychiatrist, 34(3), 103-105.  https://doi.org/10.1192/pb.bp.108.022129


  1. Jadayel, R., Medlej, K., & Jadayel J. J. (2017). Mental disorders: A glamorous attraction on social media? Journal of Teaching and Education, 7(1), 465-476. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpm.12628.


  1. Stone, L. B., Uhrlass, D. J., & Gibb, B. E. (2010). Co-rumination and lifetime history of depressive disorders in children. Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology : the official journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53, 39(4), 597–602. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2010.486323


  1. Stone, L.B., Veksler, A.E. (2022).Stop talking about it already! Co-ruminating and social media focused on COVID-19 was associated with heightened state anxiety, depressive symptoms, and perceived changes in health anxiety during Spring 2020. BMC Psychology, 10(22).  https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-022-00734-7.

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