Experts raise alarm over TikTok’s impact on mental health

Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 8:35 AM CST
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(CNN) - In just five years, TikTok has amassed more than 1 billion global users.

Eyeballs around the world are glued to the endless content and viral videos, but last month, the U.S. government along with more than a dozen states banned TikTok on most federal devices, citing national security concerns over its Chinese parent company and the possibility it could pressure TikTok to hand over personal data.

There is no public evidence the Chinese government has done that, but there is evidence of another risk - social media’s impact on mental health, particularly among Gen Z.

“Teen depression started to rise after 2012, so did self-harm and suicide,” said San Diego State University psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge.

Twenge says that as smartphones and social media grew, so did the rate of depression among teens, nearly doubling between 2004 and 2019.

By 2019, one in four U.S. teen girls had experienced clinical depression, according to Twenge.

“There’s pro-anorexia videos, there’s videos instructing people how to cut themselves. What the algorithm’s trying to do is get people to use the app for longer, because that’s how the company makes more money,” Twenge said.

In a statement, TikTok said, “One of our most important commitments is supporting the safety and well-being of teens, and we recognize this work is never finished. We continue to focus on robust safety protections for our community while also empowering parents with additional controls for their teen’s account through TikTok family pairing.”

TikTok users spent an average of an hour and a half each day on the app last year, more than any other social platform.

Emerald Goldbaum, a sophomore at the University of Buffalo, says you don’t realize how much time is passing.

“Once you watch the one video, you’re like, ‘Time to watch another video.’ It’s a cycle,” she said.

Jerome Yankey says he lost sleep and his grades suffered because of the amount of time he spent on TikTok.

“I’ve definitely done all-nighters on TikTok before. I’d just been scrolling until the sun came up,” Yankey said.

He says he also lost touch with friends and his sense of self, so he deleted the app in 2021.

“Getting disappointed by my own life, it’s never something I want to be doing, especially when I have the power to change it. But I just wasn’t because I was spending hours on this app,” Yankey said.

Hannah Williams proves the positive side of TikTok. It allowed her to create a business, Salary Transparent Street, which provides pay transparency to her nearly 1 million followers.

“I think TikTok definitely helped just because they have such audience reach potential,” Williams said.

She hopes that TikTok’s algorithm works in her favor.

“Helping people and marginalized communities is the only reason I am doing this. It’s my entire mission,” Williams said.

In July, TikTok announced that it would introduce new ways to filter out “potentially problematic” videos.

It has also recently rolled out a tool that helps people decide how much time they want to spend on the app.