Students Using TikTok to Self-Diagnose Mental Health Issues

One school counselor says she has heard students as young as third grade say they have anxiety or depression.

Students Using TikTok to Self-Diagnose Mental Health Issues

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Concerns are growing among educators and the medical community as the majority of students admit to using TikTok to self-diagnose their mental health issues.

According to a new poll from EdWeek, 65% of educators said they have seen students “sometimes” or “frequently” use social media to diagnose their mental health conditions, while 68% said students have used social media to diagnose others’ mental health conditions. Around 55% of students said they have used social media to diagnose their own mental health conditions at least once. Another 28% said they do it “sometimes” and 10% percent said they do it “all the time.”

Don Grant, a national advisor for Healthy Device Management who previously ran his own practice, told Yahoo that influencers and online groups are “convincing these kids they have all these diagnoses.” When asking them ‘Where did you get this diagnosis?’ Grant said he would get responses such as, “Oh there’s an influencer,” “Oh, I took a quiz,” or “Oh, there’s a group on social media that talks about it.”

“It leads to mismanagement of symptoms,” licensed professional counselor supervisor Kenza Haddock told WPDE. “Because let’s just say, if someone has bipolar, the treatment is not the same as an anxiety disorder. The treatment for depression is not the same as borderline personality, and so it leads to a mismanagement of symptoms which can lead to a worse state.”

Christine Elgersma, the senior editor of learning content strategy at Common Sense Media, which examines the impact of technology on children, told EdWeek that while some people posting about mental health on TikTok are basing their advice on their own experience or are citing research, personal profit is often an ulterior motive, even for influencers with real professional credentials.

“These people might be pushing a particular supplement, not because it has specific efficacy but because they’re making money, and they don’t have anybody’s best interests at heart necessarily,” she said.

School Guidance Counselor: TikTok Is WebMD for Students

Melissa Millington, a guidance counselor at a Missouri High School, determined students were learning about mental health and neurological disorders on TikTok, calling it “their WebMD.” She told EdWeek that some of her students have gone off their doctor-prescribed psychiatric drugs because a TikTok influencer told them a certain supplement would be as or more effective.

Millington also said that some of her students who have never exhibited autism spectrum disorder are adamant they have it despite the lack of a professional diagnosis. One student brought notecards with instructions in case she suddenly became nonverbal, she said. Others have claimed they have Tourette’s syndrome or dissociative identity disorder, the latter of which is an extremely rare condition. Millington said she once had to clear a room for a student who claimed to have multiple personalities until she “dropped the charade.”

Kristen Nye, a counselor at an elementary school in Delaware, told EdWeek that students as young as third grade are self-diagnosing. For the first time in her near two-decade career, she said she’s hearing third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders say “I have anxiety” or “I have depression.”

“The amount of stuff that they’re aware of because of TikTok is insane,” she said.

On the positive side, the poll notes, social media has helped take a lot of shame out of discussing mental health topics. Around 72% of educators said social media has made it easier for students to acknowledge mental health challenges. Many students agree.

“I think a lot of the recent shifts that it’s OK to discuss mental health—discussing anxiety and depression—have been because of social media,” said Shreeya Gogia, a high school senior in Texas and a facilitator for the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Student Leadership Network on Mental Health.

Gogia described one current social media trend where people post five things they are struggling with related to their mental health.

“A lot of the comments of the viral posts are people connecting, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I struggle with the same issue, too,’” she said. “‘And it feels so good to be seen.’”

Nye said social media has helped “normalize” going to a school counselor but that content on anxiety, depression, autism, and other conditions without “proper education has kind of skewed their thoughts about” mental health and neurodiversity.

Advice for Parents, Educators

Nye urges educators not to dismiss social media platforms where students are getting their medical advice because it could make them “very defensive.” Instead, she suggests they stay up-to-date on the apps students are using to help make connections with students.

Advocates also say schools and educators must teach students about social media literacy, which could help them second-guess misinformation they receive on mental health.

Grant told Yahoo that giving out incorrect mental health information should be treated like other dangers that are banned from certain platforms, such as videos on how to build a bomb.

“I believe that someone giving medical advice or psychological advice, who is not trained, who is not certified, who is not licensed, I believe that that is a violation of content, because it is dangerous,” he said.

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About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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