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How to tell if mental health advice on Tiktok and Instagram is true

Mental health tips on social media are a mixed bag.

Your favorite online creator might have valuable advice on how to deal with anxiety symptoms or how to set boundaries with family members. They can also spread false information or use their platform to promote dubious products.

During the pandemic, not only did mentions of mental health increase on social media, many influencers shifted their focus from “raising awareness” to offering guidance, the creators say. And because real-world mental health care can be expensive, difficult to access, and stigmatized, more and more young people are turning to social media to figure out how to manage difficult thoughts and feelings.

Online creators are de facto therapists to millions. It’s complicated.

That’s not always a bad thing, experts say. Lots of mental health content Authors are licensed therapists, social workers or physicians with extensive clinical experience. Others share insights from their own mental health journeys that are helping audiences feel less alone.

But health information on social media can quickly go sideways. Since mental health content generates a lot of resonance, YouTubers could use it to increase their views. Some influencers present fringe theories as if they’re fact, or misrepresent their qualifications. And because engaging with this type of content means social media algorithms show you more of it, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Mental health is important, as is the information you consume. Here are six simple questions to help you determine if online content is helpful and true.

What are the creator’s qualifications?

Being a health or social worker doesn’t automatically make you a mental health expert — but there’s no harm.

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Trusted creators should list their qualifications in their bios so audiences know what background they come from, said Kali Hobson, a doctor specializing in adult and child psychiatry who makes TikToks by the handle @drkalimd. Licensed therapists, counselors, social workers, nurses, and doctors are more likely to share true health information.

Some creators aren’t mental health professionals, and that’s fine as long as they’re honest about their qualifications and avoid offering medical advice, said Christine Gibson, a doctor-turned-trauma-therapist who makes TikToks by the handle @tiktoktraumadoc. Just make sure creators don’t present themselves as experts when they’re actually enthusiasts, she said. Be wary of salacious titles like “coach” or “expert” that don’t give much insight into a person’s education.

Can you find research results on the topic?

If you’re interested in a mental health topic, do your research off social media, Hobson said.

Google Scholar is a search engine specifically for scientific research. For example, when I typed “treatment for anxiety and depression,” the top results were research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of mindfulness, mental health apps, and acupuncture. Click on a study and read the section titled “Summary” for a summary of the results. The National Institute of Mental Health also has fact sheets on various mental health issues.

Psychological research does not always reflect people’s real-life experiences. For much of the field’s history, both researchers and study participants have been predominantly white and male, said Leandro Olszanski, a licensed consultant who makes TikToks on the handle @tu.terapeuta.en.tiktok. That means women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community often don’t reflect their experiences, said Jennie “Toli” Gintoli, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who makes TikToks at Handle @quirky.queer.therapist.

If you’re concerned that researchers and practitioners won’t understand your experience — don’t abandon your fact-finding mission, Gintoli said. Today, various professionals are working to fill in the gaps in our understanding of mental health. Find community centers or student organizations in your area, email a licensed professional who shares your identity, or find an online community that can point you to real resources.

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Apps offer teens some unique settings to stay safer online. Here’s a crash course.

how does your body feel

Just like some people in real life leave you feeling drained after hanging out, social media content can make you feel worse than before.

As you scroll, check your body, Gibson suggested. Do you feel calm and engaged in the message of the video? Or do you feel anxious, irritable or drained? These signals let us know when content is not helpful. When your body or brain feels numb, or you feel the pressure to keep scrolling for some kind of “solution,” it’s time to take a step back, she said.

Valuable, helpful content should make you feel encouraged—not hopeless, angry, or conspiratorial.

Who else is talking about this?

If a specific concept — like trauma, attachment styles, or meditation — catches your eye, type it in the search bar and see what other developers are talking about, Gintoli said. Are most of the other videos by licensed professionals, or is the subject a favorite among laypeople? Also check the comment sections. Are there many comments from mental health professionals that contradict the video’s claims?

Is it generalizing or does it diagnose over symptoms?

Social media is not the place to diagnose yourself or others, Gintoli said. For example, if you’re going through a painful breakup, diagnosing your ex with clinical narcissism may feel good right now, but it won’t fix those feelings of hurt and betrayal.

Sometimes patients come to Gintoli worried they have a particular disorder after seeing a post on social media, she said. Instead of focusing on a diagnosis, she helps them understand and treat their symptoms.

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Not everyone experiences mental illness in the same way. When creators mention certain symptoms, situations, or feelings as if they apply to everyone with a particular condition, that’s a red flag, Hobson said. For example, a video listing “Symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder” might be accurate for the creator themselves, but others might experience the same disorder differently. The same goes for treatment — what works for one person may not be right for another.

If a creator diagnoses people online, unfollow them. And remember, no diagnosis means you’re broken or unable to live a good life.

“I try to explain to my clients and people in general that just because you meet the criteria for a disorder doesn’t mean it’s part of who you are or that you will always meet the criteria for a disorder,” Olszanski said.

Does it pretend to be a treatment?

The boundaries between social media and “real life” aren’t always as clear as we like to make them out to be. Social media can play a real role in our journey to better mental health, but it can’t replace the type of personalized treatment you get from a therapist, Gintoli said.

If you’re concerned about finding a therapist who understands your background and experiences, use the Psychology Today, InclusiveTherapists.com, or InnoPsych search tools to filter by your needs.

No matter what, find someone to turn to when you’re feeling down.

“It can’t be a parent. It can’t be a therapist. It can be a friend. It could be someone you met on Discord,” Gintoli said. “TikTok is not therapy. However, I’ve made some great friends on TikTok.”

TikTok has said it will support people sharing their personal wellness journeys and will remove medical misinformation.

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