Is Social Media Telling You Have Mental Health Struggles?

Finding the Right Therapist
September 28, 2021

Is Social Media Telling You Have Mental Health Struggles?


Social media has served as an important platform for increasing awareness of mental health and helping reduce the stigma of mental health disorders. Many people have found connection on social media with others who are also struggling, as well as a community to share and express themselves in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have felt comfortable before.

However, similar to the old adage “which came first, the chicken or the egg?,” recent insight into how social media companies devise algorithms have mental health experts questioning whether people with mental health struggles gravitate to pages that focus on mental health, or whether the algorithms these companies use are steering people to mental health videos/content that falsely give people the impression they have mental illnesses.

Algorithms Lead to Mental Health Sites

A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) identified how TikTok drives social media users to specific content, many times leading them to negative or darker feeds. The WSJ conducted their experiment by creating dozens of bot accounts - essentially fake social media accounts - and assigned these “fake” users with different interests. Based on these interests, TikTok led users to pages that were originally connected to those labeled interests. However, this investigation revealed that TikTok uses the amount of time you linger over a piece of content to direct you to specific content feeds; so every second you hesitate or rewatch a specific type of content, it is tracking you and sending similar type content to you. This is especially true for bots that lingered over feeds with negative emotional feeds - triggering Tiktok’s algorithm to start redirecting users to videos with mental health, depression or darker content. This investigation has led to questions on whether TikTok really “knows” you or are directing you to feeds that have you questioning your own mental health.

We have all read about the negative aspects of social media and how it affects our mental health - cyberbulling, comparing ourselves to the “perfection of others, FOMO (fear of missing out), unrealistic expectations, but what if social media is sending us messages that we are depressed through their algorithm data when we are not?

Negativity Begets Negativity

Neuroscience research has proven that the more negative thoughts, interactions, experiences we have, the more our negative brain bias grows. The neurotransmitters in our brain ignite and their connections strengthen - so what “fires together wires together” -- the more negative content we see on social media, the more negative we feel, and so the cycle begins These algorithms are sending us to negative, darker content, not necessarily because we want to go there, but because TikTok thinks we do just from a seconds-long linger.

While we don’t want to dismiss the symptoms or struggles of someone who is navigating mental health challenges, there are some things to consider:

  • If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, consider seeing a mental health therapist who can do a more in-depth assessment on signs and symptoms, as well as provide treatment strategies and interventions.
  • Redirecting yourself to more positive content on social media sites will not only change the algorithm data, but studies have found that positive content can improve mood and overall well-being.
  • Consider taking a social media break. Numerous studies have shown that taking a social media break or “detox” - meaning deleting apps or not going on social media sites for a period of time (ideally a week), has had a positive effect on mental health, including improved connections with “real” relationships, improved self-esteem and self-image and there is a reduction in depression and anxiety.
  • Remember that having a mental health challenge is not your identity. Struggling with your mental health can be hard and distressful, but is not the only part of you. You are so much more than your mental illness.

Erin Swinson, LMHC
Mental Health Therapist

Wall Street Journal Staff. (2021, July 21). Inside TikTok’s Algorithm: A WSJ Video Investigation.
(Video.) Investigation: How TikTok's Algorithm Figures Out Your Deepest Desires (wsj.com)

Grant, Dr. Daya. (2018, March 7). The negative effects of negative thinking — Dr. Daya (dayagrant.com).

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