The way that young people interact with each other has changed significantly, with a noticeable shift occurring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which broke out in Asian countries in late 2019. Lockdowns around the world led to isolation and a forced sense of loneliness, meaning those with mental health issues were at times forced to find other outlets and ways of coping with such things. Social media sites such as TikTok created a third sense of place for these individuals, and created a unique community of people who were experiencing the same thing, to communicate, share and assist each other in whichever ways they may find possible.
KEY WORDS: Mental Health, Identity, COVID-19, TikTok, Self Esteem
Young people worldwide are using social media platforms such as TikTok as a coping mechanism for mental health issues and identity struggles. While these individuals may experience their self-thought lack of identity for many reasons, the COVID-19 outbreak can be seen as a key factor, alongside the increasing pressures for the generation to work harder and be better than their predecessors (Kira, et al., 2020). Mental health issues in adults and young people present and function reasonably similarly, however the way they deal with it changes, and the increased drive for youth to find their individual identity and presence in the modern world is becoming increasingly common and often come hand-in-hand. TikTok is a social media platform in which people share short clips of them dancing, singing, speaking and engaging with other users and their content (Schwedel, 2018). Through the use of hashtags and the creation of virtual communities, young people in communities all around the world re often able to find their identifiable purpose and begin to feel accepted by others and by themselves, thus combating some of the struggles with their mental health issues. While hashtags and online community are not limited to the TikTok app alone, due to current social media trends, TikTok is a large part of this as it had a large growth rate in 2020 and this is expected to continue. Research experts have shown that TikTok engagement went up by as much as 180 per cent after the outbreak of the pandemic last year (Tankovska, 2021). The link between COVID-19 and social media platforms use has been proven, with a significant usage rise recorded across the board due to the increased amount of time young people were spending at home and out of work. Following this, there are relations between COVID-19 and mental health issues and thus there was a stronger bond formed between already-linked mental health issues and social media, demonstrated by the heavy reliance that young people began to form on social media platforms, TikTok in particular.
The ease of information in today’s society has led to the merging of many categories of societal identity (Brusseau, 2019). In simple terms, in the past it has been easy for people to keep their separate ‘identities’ from amalgamating, which is not the case at current times. It is now more difficult to separate an individual’s ‘work identity’ from their ‘home identity’, something that was magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic and having to work from home. Further to this it is also more difficult to establish a single identity when information is so much more readily available to dictate such things (Gaither, 2019). Before the technological revolution, it was perhaps easier for people to identify themselves, due to the fact that the basis of an individual’s identity was a lot more geographical, and cultural lines and boundaries were more defined. In the postmodern society that is present at this current time, cultures are fluid, geographical barriers are little, and the ‘virtual identity’ is more relevant than ever. Many people do not understand the idea that an individual’s identity is not limited to one or two categories. They have many different personas that can all depend on a large list of factors, such as physical features, such as hair or eye colour, hobbies, academic interests or relgious beliefs, cultural backgrounds and so on (Gaither, 2019). With the newly created technologies and opportunities, young people are now creators in a world that used to be solely defined to academics and older generations (Renner, 2019). Singers are younger, children are content creators, and young people have messages to share, such as Greta Thunberg. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people had to revert from their everyday lifestyle to a more isolated, quiet and slow day-to-day basis. Meetings were now no longer face-to-face, but now an online forum that lasted for maybe an hour-or-so at a time. It was, and still is a time that definitely began to affect people’s mental health, especially young people. It is for this reason that young people are often searching for a purpose, or a singular ‘identity’, as they unknowingly possess a number of defining identifying traits. For this reason, young people from around the world may fall back on different coping mechanisms, one of which being social media, something that is familiar and comfortable for a generation who has grown up in a technological world.
MENTAL HEALTH OF YOUNG PEOPLE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Mental health issues in the younger generations of today are often a lot more complex than previously thought and was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 – also known as Corona Virus and COVID – is a highly-contagious virus that attacks the respiratory system (Government of South Australia, n.d.). During late 2019 and the early months of 2020, Asian countries were beginning to panic and enter mandatory, post-war like lockdowns. Australia progressively increased their lockdown restrictions in mid-to-late March of 2020. For some clarity in the specifics surrounding ‘young people’, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare refers to those individuals as between the ages of 15 to 24-years-old (2007). The restricted amount of freedom during isolation and lockdowns, as well as forced distancing between many people and their loved ones, led to many people experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pre-COVID statistics showed that as high as one in seven – roughly 14 per cent – of young people in Australia have a mental health disorder. More interestingly, the same data showed that the “prevalence of Major depressive disorder was higher when young people aged 11–17 provided the information themselves (7.7%) than when the information was provided by their parent/carer (4.7%)” (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016). With the transparency of information and development of technologies, those in the above age groups are exposed to more information in general, but specifically data about mental health. The above statistic suggests two of many conclusions. The first being that young people aren’t telling their parents about their mental illnesses, or that perhaps that they are self-diagnosing themselves with mental illnesses after reading information online. While it is still unknown whether these mental illnesses were actually developed within individuals or just magnified and uncovered during lockdowns, there was definitely a shift in numbers and a concerning spike in self-diagnosis. Experts have recently expressed that the “prolonged social isolation of the COVID-19 lockdown increases the delirious effects of stress and uncertainty on physical and mental disorders, increasing feelings of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress syndrome,” (Cauberghe, Van Wesenbeeck, De Jans, Liselot, & Koen, 2020). Many people were now forced into an uncomfortable situation, with individuals scrambling to ‘find themselves’ and their identity. Many people lost their jobs and were forced to reduce their human contact, hobbies and freedom as a whole. For this reason, social media became their new hobby. It is estimated that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 43 per cent of people aged 16 to 64 spent longer using social media, 36 per cent spent more time on mobile phone apps, and 16 per cent spent their time creating and uploading videos (Mander, 2020). TikTok can be identified as one of the most significant trending video content creation apps at the moment, therefore this statistic has direct relation to the increase of usage and mental health through the COVID-19 lockdown.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND TIKTOK
Social media can be used for many different reasons and the fluidity of apps of this nature was demonstrated especially during the COVID-19 lockdown. Not only was social media used for entertainment, humour and occupying boredom, but also as a method for young people to cope with mental health issues and lack of identity (Cauberghe, Van Wesenbeeck, De Jans, Liselot, & Koen, 2020). Many people in the world engage with some form of social media, whether they realise it or not, with Curtin lecturer Tama Leaver even suggesting that individuals can be engaging with social media whilst they are still in their mother’s womb, by parents sharing growth and other updates via social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (Leaver, 2015). For this reason, many teenagers are born into the comfort of social media, and apps such as TikTok are a social norm for them now. Alongside other social media platforms, TikTok usage was heavily increased during the COVID-19 pandemic (Tankovska, 2021). TikTok mostly shows the convergence and remediation of existing media types, with people making up dances, remixes and covers to already-existing media. The app is now so popular that there are people whose job is solely to create paid content for TikTok, such as well known stars Loren Gray and Addison Rae (Influencer Marketing, 2020).
During COVID-19 people turned to TikTok both as a hobby and also as a community. The idea of peer-to-peer support was originated when social media usage began to spike, and takes the form of forums, hashtags and communities in which people ask for advice from others in their same position (Naslund, Aschbrenner, Marsch, & Bartels, 2016). It can impact identity and mental health issues, as rather than young people going to their parents for help, they are going to the internet, which may seem like a safer and easier option for them. As much as the stigma behind mental health illness is beginning to break down, there is still a certain shadow hovering over the issue that can lead to embarrassment, and is often the reason young people, especially males, are too scared to ask for help. There is also the appealing factor of anonymity, something that people can begin to heavily rely on when they are dealing with personal issues such as these. The ease of access during the COVID-19 lockdown meant that young people were able to access the support they wanted at any time of the day, and from total strangers, which meant there were little to no consequences of sharing how they were feeling. For these young people, especially those who weren’t yet adults, they could bypass the whole process of telling their parents, seeing doctors and psychologists, to find the support that they were searching for in the palm of their hand. Through them creating content that people were able to consume and engage with, and others sharing their own stories, the youth of today began to fall in a pattern of finding the help that they needed through social media sites such as TikTok
Alongside the evolution of social media, the hashtag has been a powerful tool to create and enhance trends (Clark, 2016). The most popular hashtags on TikTok tend to include algorithm-based tactics such as #foryou #comedy, however there are some hashtags that have been created with an aim of creating a particular conversation and bringing people together as a community (TikTok, n.d.). An example of this is #mentalhealthmatters, which is a hashtag that, as of 12pm Sunday the 4th of April, has 7.3 billion views. The bio that TikTok has created for the hashtag reads:
“It’s time to break stigmas, and start talking openly about mental health. Whether it’s educating others, being compassionate, or sharing resources, lets support one another because #MentalHealthMatters” (TikTok, n.d.).
By people who have suffered from mental health issues posting about their experiences, this is a coping mechanism in itself. They are in a way, venting and getting out their emotions, and hearing from other people who are in the same situation as them and are doing okay. The hashtag demonstrates hundreds-of-thousands of people who have shared a video, either telling the tale of their own mental health struggle, or someone close to them. By them sharing the video that tells their story they receive supportive comments such as “I went through the same thing, it will be okay”, and “my heart goes out to you”, and even some offering psychological and financial advice. A ‘third place’ is seen as somewhere where people are able to interact in a place that is other than the workplace or their home and, in this instance, it relates to those virtual communication methods, such as on TikTok (Soukup, 2006). The idea behind TikTok being a ‘third place’ as such, means that people are able to communicate with each other and in a lockdown situation for some, this is the only interaction that they may be having inclusive of work and home. For young people this third place was crucial for some in maintaining their mental health and coping with things such as stress, anxiety and isolation.
Mental health issues and identity struggles are now extremely prevalent due to the nature of the world currently. Situations such as working from home, cancelled events and hobbies, and being restricted to how long an individual can be outside, impact the mental health and wellbeing of not only young people, but most groups who were forced into this situation. There are many young people around the world who often question their existence and their purpose. By creating and engaging a ‘third place’ within TikTok and other social media, they are creating a type of persona for themselves and becoming a ‘TikToker’ or an ‘Influencer’, thus leading to less of an identity struggle within themselves. It creates this new sense of purpose for that individual, that they may have been lacking, or may have been forced into by the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdown situations. Hashtags and other groups that form community on the app were able to link like-minded individuals, and in this case, lead to an additional coping mechanism that some young people around the globe may have been lacking.
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14 thoughts on “TikTok, identity struggles and mental health issues: How are the youth of today coping?”
I love the topic of your paper! I think TikTok is a very relevant platform to be looking at right now due to its immense popularity, particularly in the past year with COVID-19.
I agree that forced lockdowns due to COVID-19 have certainly changed the way that people interact and communicate on a daily basis. Although I believe communication has always been heading in the direction of becoming more online, COVID has certainly sped up this process and forced people to adopt this as a way of life. In terms of mental health, I think forced isolation has definitely changed the way that people cope. People who would normalise seek face-to-face help for mental illnesses, like talking to professional psychiatrists or even friends, were forced to use the Internet to do this. I think this may have had a negative impact on some people, especially older generations who are often not as accustomed to online spaces, contributing to a sense of uncertainty. However, I think it has also been beneficial for some people because it has raised awareness for online mental health services. During the periods of quarantine we experienced, I frequently saw advertisements for counselling services to support people who were anxious and stressed. Hence, I think that there is now greater awareness and acceptance for online therapy which many people are more comfortable with! Do you think that online counselling services will become more commonplace in the years to come after their success during periods of lockdown?
I also agree that TikTok is a platform which has helped people find support for mental health disorders and normalise this! I have seen professional therapists share videos on TikTok to support and educate their audience on mental health issues, for example @the.truth.doctor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOV0W3Jyuuk). I think this has really helped reduce the stigma around seeking therapy and encourage more people to do so!
Thanks for sharing your paper, I really enjoyed reading it!
Courtney, T. [Dr. Courtney Tracy]. (2020, July 7). VIRAL TikTok Therapist Compilation – The Truth Doctor [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOV0W3Jyuuk
I loved your paper, it was a really interesting array of research!
I think that its so important to talk about these topics, especially during this time.
According to Hayman, Holan, Hedderel “Functional symptoms as a part of an overall increase in mental health disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic The adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adult and child mental health is becoming increasingly evident.4 5 Rates of mental health problems in children and young people were 10.8% in the 2017 UK mental health survey” (2021. p. 420).
I have noticed a lot of TikTok parents posting videos where they explain the extent of how the pandemic has affected their children’s social lives and mental health. I always think that people forget that children and teenagers can suffer from poor mental health when not surrounded by their usual surroundings and environment.
TikTok has really offered young people to feel included and to relate to people from all around the world with people speaking up and giving agency to people with mental health problems.
Hope you have a great day!
Heyman, I., Liang, H., & Hedderly, T. (2021). COVID-19 related increase in childhood tics and tic-like attacks. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 106(5), 420-421. doi:http://dx.doi.org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1136/archdischild-2021-321748
Your paper is so well written and a pleasure to read. In regards to Tiktok being a third place, this would imply that all who participate are on an equal footing and so I imagine there would be concerns regarding the validity of some mental health advice being circulated since as previous discussions have pointed out, improper self-diagnosis may be a reality due to unqualified assumptions being made. You do address that young poeple may not have access to alternatives to address their mental health struggles and Tiktok being so widely accessible seems to benefit young poeple in terms of finding reassurance in their identities at least.
I also found it interesting how you differentiate between ‘algorithm targeting tactics’ and perhaps a more sincere, well intentioned hashtag that is not simply self serving. You conclude that having a purpose by being a Tiktoker or influencer reduces identity struggles – is Tiktok as a platform unique in facilitating this for youth? Do you think the communities formed on Tiktok through hashtags more conducive to young people feeling supported and able to cope?
This was a really great paper, and I’m sure I’m one of many people who can attribute at least some of my “lockdown sanity” to Tiktok.
I find your paper an interesting juxtaposition to other articles I’ve read where they suggest that “social media addiction” can actually contribute to one’s depression and anxiety. This article from McLean Hospital (2021) suggests that social media use was tied “to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance”. I can understand where these views are coming from, also in particular with bullying and getting into a habit of checking your accounts all the time because of FOMO.
However, I found my experience in lockdown and isolation was made more bearable with the use of Tiktok in particular, but also with the use of my social media accounts. They helped me to stay connected with people I couldn’t see otherwise and kept me grounded.
What are your thoughts about this study linking social media use to things like depression and anxiety? Do you think that perhaps we could still get the support we need but maybe just cut down our screen time and perhaps regulate our usage?
Mclean Hospital. (2021). The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health
Thank you very much for your kind words! It was a paper that I very much enjoyed writing.
I think the juxtaposition really needs to be there. There is two sides to every argument in the world, and I personally feel this is the one less explored. This is not saying the argument that social media can have a negative impact is not valid, because I absolutely think it is! The article that you have linked in has an opening statement which says social media “can” cause mental health issues. I think the word “can” is very important in this situation, as it raises the fact that it is not necessarily every person.
I agree with you when it comes to the lockdown and isolation experience. I absolutely feel the same and know many people who do, which is why I think a pandemic really changes the trajectory of how people engage with social media. They eliminated the feelings of loneliness, brought about senses of identity and also connected people.
I think this is where moderation comes in to play. At some point in their lives, people will hear the old saying “everything in moderation”. In the similar situation of children’s behaviour problems, studies have actually shown that the moderate use of devices and screens are not linked with the way that they are acting (Ferguson, 2017). This reiterates my point, and the answer to your question to me is yes, I definitely think screen time going down and usage regulation is the best way to go.
Ferguson, C. (2017). Everything in Moderation: Moderate Use of Screens Unassociated with Child Behavior Problems. Psychiatric Quarterly, 88(4), 797-805. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11126-016-9486-3
I like how you explained the relation between the third space and TikTok. I absolutely agree that mental health issues and identity struggles are now extremely prevalent due to the nature of the world currently. With all the restrictions and not being able to go out and see your friends and working from home, this has allowed people more time with themselves, leading to mental health issues like depression, etc. You said that young people are receiving a higher percentage of diagnosis of mental health issues due to self-diagnosis from the information provided online through social media platforms such as TikTok, I do agree with you but I also think as online communities show support for mental health, people are starting to feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the tools provided such as the anonymity function. This gives people the liberty to express their struggles without having to disclose any personal information. I think a lot of platforms have this function which has allowed people to be more open about mental health.
Thank you for your comment, and for taking the time to read my paper. I originally did not include the link between third space and TikTok when I submitted my paper, however when revising for the conference realised it was a necessary link and for me not to include it was silly! Was there a reason you resonated with this point so much?
The nature of the world in a COVID-19 pandemic time is quite different to what society is used to. I do want to question you back, as I completely agree with what you’re saying about loneliness. Social media could also increase the communication levels between people so – could we also argue that it positively impacts they way people deal with mental health issues?
I absolutely agree with this sentence that you have said:
“… I also think as online communities show support for mental health, people are starting to feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the tools provided such as the anonymity function.”
The anonymity function is absolutely a game-changer in this situation. It is something I really wish I had gone into more detail about so am very glad you mentioned it! I think anonymity should be a more common feature on websites. Facebook groups have actually begun to have the feature more available, something that should be available for more apps and websites.
Thanks for your comment and your opinion on the topic – it is much welcomed.
Thank you for this thoughtful and insight paper on mental health communities of support on the TikTok platform.
You might be interested to read my paper – #Theatrekids: Finding community through the TikTok platform during the COVID-19 pandemic. (https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/theatrekids-finding-community-through-the-tiktok-platform-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/) where I investigate the online theatre communities that have emerged on the TikTok platform due to the closure of the global arts industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe we have covered some similar issues.
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a heavy toll on young people around the world as they experience lockdowns, loneliness and anxiety of the unknown. However, in regards to your suggestion that young people are receiving higher percentage of diagnosis of mental health issues due to them self-diagnosis based on information that they have seen online, do you think it is possible that perhaps it’s not so much a case of self-diagnosing but instead them feeling more comfortable to talk about these issues due to people being so open about their struggles on social media?
It has been excellent to see a shift since I was a teenager where more and more people are being open and honest about their daily struggles with mental health, especially people who have high profiles on social media sites. For example, this article by Mojtabai (2007) found that “Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2001–2003 had a more positive attitude toward mental health treatment seeking than adults of the same age in 1990–1992” (p. 649). As we have become more aware of mental health issues, I believe we have also started to become more open about being affected by them.
Would love to hear your thoughts on the above.
Mojtabai, R. (2007). Americans’ Attitudes Toward Mental Health Treatment Seeking: 1990–2003. Psychiatric Services, 58(5), 642-651. https://doi.org/10.1176/ps.2007.58.5.642
Thanks for your insightful questions – and for sharing your paper with me. I read and definitely agree that we have some overlapping ideas, which is promising as it means we are both on the right track.
The toll of the pandemic on young people is probably one never expected, and with lack of preparation, it is understandable that anxiety and mental health issues will be heightened during this time. Perhaps it is a case that young people really are feeling more comfortable to speak to people – rather than them self diagnosing! I appreciate that thought and how you have brought that question into my mind!
The openness of people on social media is one that is growing every day, especially with movements, such as the hashtag #mentalhealthmatters movement, which is now up to nine billion views! It is one that I look forward to seeing grow with technology, and hopefully there is not actually more people with the issues, just more people feeling comfortable to be diagnosed.
I agree with people being more open to mental health issues. I think everyone that I have spoken to in the past few years has had one form of mental health issue at some point, so the transparency and breaking down of the stigma is great, something that has been growing but still necessary.
Thanks again for your time!
Hi Erin, I really enjoyed reading this. I found it particularly insightful with regards to how the conversation of mental health has become more prevalent due to the pandemic and questions of the validity of peoples mental health due to these communities which leads to misinformation and self-diagnosis, I have never thought of it that way before. However do you agree there is a confusing juxtaposition between social media being used as a coping mechanism for teens but also being a significant cause of mental health problems? Regardless, I really enjoyed this and I think you had a great argument particularly on the topic of how COVID-19 has created a new surge of mental health problems for social media users.
Thank you for reading and also for your kind words Bonnie!
This topic is something that I myself have never thought of, until I was researching for this assessment. I thought to myself, what social media did I engage with the most during lockdown? The answer was TikTok, and after reading countless articles I realised that TikTok indeed was what I wished to write this conference paper. I do also absolutely agree with your points. I think there is a large validity in assuming that while TikTok may have been used as a coping mechanism, it is not always the healthiest or best way for these teenagers to be dealing with it. For example, a more serious issue is that of self harm and eating disorders. According to an article written about this topic, while these people are sharing their issues to cope themselves, they may be triggering others, or promoting ideas that perhaps they would never have seen in the past, thus making their mental health actually in a worsened state, due to the lack of regulation on such posts (Logrieco, Marchili, Roversi & Villani, 2021).
If you would like to discuss any further I am very much open to a discussion. I suggest you read the below article too for further understanding!
Logrieco, G., Marchili, M., Roversi, M., & Villani, A. (2021). The Paradox of Tik Tok Anti-Pro-Anorexia Videos: How Social Media Can Promote Non-Suicidal Self-Injury and Anorexia. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 18(3). https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18031041
You have created a well supported argument and I agree with your point in saying that presence bleed in COVID 19 times has been an important factor contributing to mental health. You go on to say that social media has acted as a means to cope with these mental health issues through creating a community of support. I would argue that the content on social media can in turn have negative mental health impacts such as low self esteem or depression through the effects of cyber bullying. Would you agree with this?
Absolutely Karina, and there is sufficient evidence to support both sides of the argument. However, I feel there is so much focus in today’s society on the negatives of social media, that nobody is willing to remember the benefits that come with social media platforms. While cyber bullying is also an issue that is raised, and trolls are very much prevalent, during COVID-19, when people had no other human connection, and young people in particular, social media actually did bring people together, which was seen by the evidence in my essay. I do think you are also correct though, and it tends to be very situational. Thank you for your input! I like to hear both sides of the argument.