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Don’t believe everything you see on the internet – that’s something we are all aware of, even though it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between genuine content and misinformation. It’s generally understood that the younger generations – the ‘digital natives’ – are better at telling myth from fact when online, but that’s recently come into question after a TikTok craze that’s sweeping the world. In a recent article, Psychology Today writer, Gary Drevitch, discussed how best to counter TikTok’s mental health misinformation. This led us to ask the question, ‘is social media making us depressed?’. Let’s get to the bottom of it.

TikTok and mental health misinformation 

During the pandemic, many of us faced heightened levels of isolation. For those in their formative years, this has no doubt had a significant impact on their development, as well as their mental health. 

Unsurprisingly, the use of social media rose by between 10% and 28% through different age groups and demographics. Younger users flocked in droves to TikTok, a short-format video-sharing app that has been hugely popular since its release in 2016. Whilst it’s often used to share funny or entertaining videos (think dance routines in the living room, or cats acting strangely), it’s now also widely used to share stories and information about mental health.

Psychology Today’s article highlights the dangers of the vast swathes of misinformation shared through TikTok. It uses as an example the likely self-misdiagnosis by one teenager surrounding ADHD. Where the teenager, Clara, was most likely to be experiencing completely normal feelings around isolation, she was led to believe she may have ADHD thanks to vague symptoms and information being shared through the app. With so many youths online looking for answers about what they’re experiencing, there’s a danger of misdiagnosis and mistreatment. According to the article

“ A recent study examined 500 videos that had accrued roughly 25 million views. Medical professionals went through each clip and found that 83.7% offered inaccurate or potentially damaging advice; featured a content creator who was unqualified and did not include a disclaimer; or encouraged self-diagnosis. More problematic videos claimed to describe diagnoses of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression.”

But is social media making us depressed? 

The dangers of misdiagnosis and mistreatment are serious, of course. But is social media itself changing the way our brains work? Is social media making us depressed? The answer is, quite possibly, yes. Social media has an impact on the way we perceive the world and can even change the way our brains work. One recent article by experts from McLean Hospital in the United States tells us:

“Social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain’s reward centre by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction. The platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments.” 

With over 81% of teens and 69% of adults currently using social media, the potential for mental health consequences can’t be ignored. Social media is like gambling, it is the repetitive nature and the possibility of reward that keeps people going back. Like many of us, you or someone you know may have instituted a self-imposed social media ban, only to return a few days or weeks later. Social media is a hard habit to kick, thanks to the very deliberate dopamine-reward-based nature of the platforms. 

People post to social media in the hope of receiving positive feedback from likes, comments, and other interactions. The trouble is, the comparisons we make of ourselves and each other means that no amount of validation is ever enough. Thus begins the endless cycle of sharing, hoping, being validated or not, and sharing again. The result can be feelings of low self-esteem, worthlessness, hopelessness, and even anxiety and depression. For still-developing brains, this can be particularly hazardous.

A 2018 British study found that social media use resulted in decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which is associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance. Social media use can also affect users physically, due to poor health outcomes related to lack of sleep, anxiety, and depression.

How to enjoy social media responsibly 

Some platforms like Instagram are already making changes to help combat the negative mental health impacts they pose. But their measures, like obscuring the number of ‘likes’ a post receives, only go so far. We can’t rely on social media platforms to act in the interests of their users’ mental health, nor can we rely on them to combat the sheer volume of misinformation being shared. And, it seems that we can’t trust ourselves to put away our devices and stop using these platforms, even when they are causing us distress. So, like anything in life, we must learn to use social media responsibly. If you or someone you love is suffering with the negative side effects of social media, or find they’re enhancing your depression or anxiety, here are a few things you can do: 

  1. Limit time on social media: There are certain apps that can track and limit your use of social media. You can use these, or your own due diligence, to set a limit for your exposure each day and ensure you’re not spending hours and hours down the rabbit hole of social media. 
  2. Only follow accounts that make you feel good. That means unfollowing any account that brings about negative feelings. Instead, follow accounts that spread positive messages and avoid any accounts spreading information they’re not qualified to speak on.
  3. Only speak to your doctor, counsellor, and psychologist when it comes to diagnosing mental health concerns or illnesses. Do not rely on anything you read or see on social media platforms, and seek professional advice if you think you may be experiencing a mental health concern. 
  4. Learn what triggers feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-worth in you. You can try this yourself by rating, from 0 – 10 how strongly you experience negative emotions before and after using social media (with 10 being the most intense). Try doing this at the same time each day for a week. You, like many people, may notice a pattern of feeling worse after using social media. That’s your signal to stop, or at least limit, your use. 
  5. If you’ve noticed you’re feeling more anxious, worried, or depressed when using social media, but find it hard to stop, it’s time to reach out to a professional. A counsellor or psychologist can help you to identify where these feelings come from and give you strategies to combat them. 

Although it can be hard to spot, social media can play a huge role in our mental health. Get in touch with Integrated Health Specialists today – we offer both Gold Coast counselling and psychology services – to overcome the negative impacts that social media is having on you. 


Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen