Paging Dr. TikTok”: What to Do When Your Child Self-Diagnoses with a Mental Health Issue

What to Do When Your Child Self-Diagnoses with a Mental Health Issue

“When my middle-schooler asked if she could have a TikTok account, I thought ‘sure’ – she’s a dancer and loves making up her own routines. Because that’s what I thought it was – a bunch of kids choreographing little dance numbers. But now she’s on ‘mental health TikTok’ and is convinced she’s on the autism spectrum. How am I supposed to respond to this?”

Questions like this are increasingly common in our psychotherapy practice. In the age of social media, platforms like TikTok have become more than just sources of entertainment – they are avenues for users to share experiences and connect with others. In fact, studies report that teens spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media per day, with 1.5 hours of that time on TikTok, even with the app’s parental control screen time limit for kids under 18. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, kids who engage in social media for three hours or more a day double their risk for mental health issues.

This study also touches on the trend of kids self-diagnosing with a variety of neurological and/or psychological concerns after engaging with mental health TikTok. This poses a complicated challenge for parents: to what degree is TikTok-inspired self-diagnosis beneficial, benign or problematic, and how should parents intervene?

The Power of Connection and Information

Through short, engaging videos, TikTok has provided a unique avenue for teens to share and learn more about mental health concerns, with users disclosing their experiences with anxiety, depression, ADHD and other mental health challenges. Content creators have built a sense of community and connection allowing young people to explore mental health concerns, which not only reduces stigma but also combats feelings of loneliness. Mental health content on social media can spearhead discussions with parents and caregivers about our teens’ struggles and states of mind, leading to proper diagnosis and treatment.

The Pitfalls of Self-Diagnosis and The Danger of Misinformation

While the platform can be a valuable space for connection and validation, it’s crucial to recognize the limitations of self-diagnosis, especially for complex mental health conditions. Many of the mental health content creators are not licensed clinicians, and yet they will espouse themselves and their information as valid sources for diagnosis. Recent studies analyzing the veracity of popular mental health content have found that 84% of these videos imparted inaccurate, sometimes even harmful, information.

Furthermore, TikTok has an incredibly powerful algorithm, designed to feed users more and more content once they’ve demonstrated an interest. With TikTok, this sometimes means teens who are hoping for information on depression or eating disorders may be shown information on suicide or restrictive eating tips.

What Parents Can Do: Stay Connected and Remain Involved

Ultimately, we advise the parents in our practice to respond with curiosity, not judgment. If there is something in this content that resonates with your child, it’s important to keep an open dialogue and explore why the video struck a chord without getting angry or dismissive. We also encourage parents to reflect on their reactions to the diagnoses their child is seeking. Some diagnoses elicit strong feelings in us as parents, and it’s vital to recognize our own inherent biases and fears.

TikTok and social media, like anything else in the tech world, are tools. You wouldn’t hand over a power drill or chainsaw to your 12-year-old without some instruction, guidance and monitoring. Educating your teens on mental health and social media literacy is key, but you should do so without judgment. Go online with your child to age-appropriate websites that offer further education on their suspected diagnosis. Help your teen understand that mental health is nuanced and multifaceted and that while self-diagnosis is a starting point, it’s incomplete.

By keeping an open mind with nonjudgmental dialogue, you – not Tiktok or any other social media platform – remain the consistent and loving guiding point for your teen. Use these moments to teach your child about vetting internet sources, finding reliable information and the importance of partnering with trained behavioral health professionals so you can work towards their better mental health as a family.

We recommend the following websites to start these conversations with your teen.