Classroom Technology

A Deep Dive Into TikTok’s Sketchy Mental Health Advice

By Alyson Klein — April 24, 2024 8 min read
The TikTok logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen which displays the TikTok home screen, Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston.
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A high school counselor can track what’s trending on TikTok by hearing what undiagnosed mental health or neurological condition her students think they have.

An elementary school counselor listens to 3rd graders say they have depression—a word she’s pretty sure they picked up on social media.

And more half of teens surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center earlier this year said they have used social media to diagnose their own mental health conditions.

The 24/7 conversation about mental health taking place on sites like TikTok is finding its way into classrooms. To be sure, there are some positive effects: Social media has destigmatized many mental health conditions and encouraged students to be more open about their feelings, educators and experts say. But students are also seeing a lot of potentially counterproductive misinformation.

One way to combat the problem: Teach students to apply the same media literacy skills to the mental health information they see online that they would to a news opinion piece, educators and experts said.

Educators can “really get [students] to kind of do this critical thinking,” said Dan Florell, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who teaches school psychologists. Have students consider if the video cites a valid study to back up its claims, and if the creator of it has professional credentials in mental health.

Florell even suggested teachers or counselors turn this into a classroom activity. “OK, let’s go online and find some TikTok videos that are claiming certain stuff. And then let’s break it down and see if this is true. And if not, why not?” he said.

As a reporter for Education Week covering mental health, technology, and the intersection between the two, I asked Florell to put his advice into practice. Earlier this month, I searched TikTok for popular videos offering a range of mental health advice, and then showed them to Florell over Zoom. I asked: Is the source reputable? How do you know? Is the advice sound? How can you tell?

My goal was to give teachers a sense of the mental health content their students see on social media, and to create a resource teachers could use in their classrooms—read the video description, ask students what they think, then share Florell’s take. (This could also be used for professional development.)

Dan Florell

Following is a sampling of what I found on TikTok, and how Florell responded. The videos described below were not embedded to avoid amplifying misinformation.

Hawking supplements to relieve ADHD symptoms

Video: A woman in a pajama tank top stands in a kitchen and takes viewers through an “unboxing” of the supplements she takes every night that she says help her attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, including magnesium and Vitamin D. She holds up each bottle so that the brand name is clear.

Source: The creator of the video, who has more than 150,000 followers, identifies in her bio as a person with ADHD—and that’s what most of her videos are about.

Florell’s take: It’s a good bet the video was made by an influencer who is getting paid to promote certain products, he said.

“Anytime I hear the word ‘unboxing,’ I’m thinking that there’s a sponsorship involved,” he said. “I’m putting [the video] into the advertising category. Anytime you see an ad, you’ve got to know that they are not necessarily expressing what’s best for you as the viewer. They are hawking a particular item for sale.”

It’s unlikely there’s evidence to back up her claims. “Supplements are unregulated by the FDA,” Florell said. “So even if there’s some grain of truth to the fact that some of these may be helpful for certain mental health conditions, there’s probably not been much research on it.”

This song will relieve anxiety

Video: An exuberant man wearing scrubs and a stethoscope quotes research saying that listening to a particular song for just three months could reduce anxiety as much as 65 percent—a similar level of effectiveness to a class of anti-anxiety drugs known as Benzodiazepines.

Source: The creator, who has over 600,000 followers, identifies himself as an anesthesiologist.

Florell’s take: The video feels silly, but in this case TikTok may be offering helpful—or at least not particularly harmful—mental health advice.

It’s relatively easy to check the man’s claim that he’s an anesthesiologist with a quick Google search, Florell said. (In fact, someone matching the man’s name and appearance works for a hospital affiliated with a major university.)

While some TikTok creators with real medical credentials may offer advice outside their area of expertise, an anesthesiologist must see plenty of patients who are anxious about surgery—so he’s on firm ground here. What’s more, it’s not hard to find the real study referred to in the video, which was conducted by another major university and does show that a certain song has a significant calming effect on listeners.

“The more people’s statements give you chances to check on [them], the more legitimate [their advice] likely is,” Florell said. But, he cautioned, “people misinterpret findings all the time. And you may still have to find that article to make sure” the claims are true.

Unlike taking supplements that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor, there’s not much potential downside in listening to a song, Florell added.

“It’s minimal risk, and possible high benefits,” Florell said.

Don’t stop taking your medication without talking to a doc

Video: A young woman (playing herself) tells her doctor that her mental health medication worked so well that she felt great and stopped taking it. The same woman then plays her doctor giving a disapproving double take.

Source: The creator, who has nearly 20,000 followers on TikTok, says she is a pharmacy student. The website she links to in her bio showcases an unrelated hobby, not medical expertise.

Florell’s take: The creator’s message is “actually great advice,” he said. But it would be hard for a layperson to know that.

Patients stopping their medication because they feel better—without letting their doctor know—is a perennial problem in the mental health field.

Even though the woman’s point is spot on, it would be hard to tell from this video—or the additional context in her bio—that she knows what she’s talking about. The video is “not presented in a very professional way,” Florell said, because it is obviously meant to be humorous.

“I think it’s giving the right message, but I would have no way to know that’s the right message if I wasn’t a psychologist or someone who works” in the mental health field, Florell said.

People with ADHD don’t miss their friends when they aren’t around

Video: A man is talking straight to camera about ADHD. He claims that those who have the disorder don’t miss their friends when they aren’t around because they forget about them.

He says: “People with ADHD have the ability that we do not miss anyone. And it is object permanence in a sense and time permanence, that we are almost in a sense blind to this,” he says. “It’s how our brain functions. … They’re not texting us. … we forget about them.”

Source: The creator has more than a million followers. A link to his website identifies him as a mental health advocate but does not list additional professional credentials.

Florell’s take: The advice in the video is simply “not true,” Florell said. For one thing, most people establish object permanence—the understanding that something doesn’t go away just because it isn’t right in front of you—in early childhood. It’s very rare not to have grasped that concept, Florell said. “So, he’s using some buzzwords about psychology, and then taking them to an extreme,” Florell explained.

What’s more, “if I was watching [this video] and taking his word for it, and I have a friend with ADHD, I don’t feel obligated to ever touch base, because you know, they’re not going to miss me,” Florell said. “Their feelings can’t be hurt, right?”

But as a school psychologist who has treated patients with the disorder, “I’ve known a lot of ADHD individuals, I know a lot who feel quite hurt by being excluded,” Florell said.

It’s unlikely the man in the video is being intentionally misleading, Florell added. Instead, he may be “relaying his own experience,” Florell said. What the man describes “may be true of himself, but he is not representative of the millions of people who have this diagnosis,” Florell explained.

Is ‘functional freeze’ a real thing?

Video: A woman sits on a couch with a cheerless expression. Across the screen it says: “Signs you’re stuck in a functional freeze: Procrastinating, scrolling, or binge-watching TV when you have free time instead of doing the things you actually want to do. Feeling emotionally numb except for the ‘internal overwhelm.’ Living life just going through the motions but disconnected from your body. … Follow for tips on how to shift out of this state.”

Source: The creator identifies herself as a “burnout dietician” and links to supplements and other health information, as well as a hiking retreat she’s leading. She has over 140,000 followers.

Florell’s take: “Functional freeze” isn’t a medical diagnosis, Florell said. And that’s easy enough to check by going to a reputable health site like the Mayo Clinic. “You can type in functional freeze [on that site], you’re not gonna get any results.” That means whatever the woman is offering to help the situation is “probably not going to be legitimate.”

The symptoms described in the video sound more like depression, Florell added. Many people with depression are still able to go about their daily lives, although they sleep a lot in their free time and lack motivation, he said.

Dubious claim that alcohol cures autism

Video: This video is a “stitch” or reaction to an earlier video. In the first video, a young woman says, “The cure to autism is an IV that administers alcohol.” In the second video, another woman says, “I have autism and I can confirm this is true because the second alcohol touches my bloodstream, I become a neurotypical person.”

Source: The creator of the first video has more than 40,000 followers. She does not give any professional credentials. The second one has more than 2,000 followers and also, no professional credentials.

Florell’s take: This is obviously false, and easily fact-checked. “I think that would be one you could give a Google search real quick,” he said. “And [you’d] probably figure out is not true.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2024 edition of Education Week as A Deep Dive Into TikTok’s Sketchy Mental Health Advice

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