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At this point, the potential concerns surrounding the impact of social media on young people’s mental health is well documented. Far from simply being a case of overzealous caution around a new form of media, experts recognise that the potential risks that social media poses to the young and vulnerable are very real, and worthy of further research.

The Office for National Statistics’ national wellbeing survey from 2015 identified a “clear association” between the length of time spent on social media and the prevalence of mental health issues, while the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has warned there is an “urgent need” for further research into the impact of social media and screen time on children’s wellbeing.

With the recent emergence of TikTok as a highly popular channel of communication favoured by children, attention will need to be paid to how the unique dynamics of this platform might be influencing the outlook of its young users - and not always in positive ways.

Mixed messages on mental health and body image?

One thing that is indisputable about TikTok is the sheer speed of the platform’s growth in recent years. In 2020, TikTok had around 3.7 million active users in the UK, with estimates suggesting that as many as 10 million will have downloaded the app by the end of this year.

It is quickly becoming a platform of choice among the younger generation, with the largest proportion of its users - 26% - belonging to the 18-24 age group. Presently, it is the seventh most active social media app in the world, and users engage with the app for an average of 41 minutes a day.

Largely, TikTok users are having a positive experience, often engaging with content from other socially conscious young people that promotes messages about self-acceptance and community support. However, as with any social network, the platform is also plagued by imagery, messages and trends that could cause real harm to users’ mental health, including:

  • Content that promotes unhealthy lifestyles and unrealistic body image
  • Promotion of weight loss products and services to young people and children
  • Negative or cruel comments from other users
  • Dependence on online validation from other users
  • Personal information being unwittingly passed on to malicious actors

There are a number of different ways in which these issues can manifest. Even famous TikTok influencers such as Charli D’Amelio often speak out about the judgemental comments she receives about her weight when posting videos, while others have raised concerns about messages that seem to promote eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, under euphemistic tags like “pro-ana” and “pro-mia”.

James Downs, an eating disorder and mental health campaigner, told the BBC: “I think that the lack of transparency around how content is fed to different people through the app makes TikTok especially threatening, as none of us can be sure what content we will see and whether it will be safe for our mental wellbeing.”

To TikTok’s credit, the platform is making active efforts to reverse these trends and foster a more positive culture for young users. Mental health and wellbeing campaigns are common among TikTok’s progressive young users, often led by the platform itself, while rules are being put in place to control the posting of weight loss content. These include:

  • Banning ads for fasting apps and weight loss supplements
  • Restricting access to weight management products to users over 18
  • Stronger moderation of content that claims to offer weight loss solutions, including the limiting of potentially irresponsible claims
  • Ensuring that ads promoting weight loss and weight management products do not promote a negative body image or a poor relationship with food

Users are also being asked to report any content they see that breaks these rules, in order to bring an end to the mixed messages on body positivity that currently plague the platform.

An issue for all social media platforms to solve

However, this issue extends much further than TikTok, and is part of a broader conversation that affects all aspects of how young people interact and communicate in the modern internet age.

A Pew Research Center report from 2018 surveyed 743 teens aged 13 to 17 and 1,058 parents of children in this age group, finding mixed views on the impact of social media in their lives. Nearly a quarter - 24% - said it had a mostly negative impact, compared to 31% who said the impact was mostly positive and 45% who could not decide either way.

Our own research has also suggested that the current COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown may be exacerbating many of these negative trends, as the fact that more and more of our interactions are now having to take place online means that many are feeling increasingly self-conscious about the way they look.

The poll showed that 69% of our 1,149 respondents have felt quite aware or very aware of their own appearance as a result of having to appear on a screen more regularly. People aged between 21 and 25 were shown to have seen the biggest decrease in satisfaction with how their body looks due to the pandemic.

Taking control of your own mental health

Neither the pandemic nor the issue of TikTok toxicity looks likely to be solved overnight. This is why it is so important for those who are struggling with their mental health or body image as a result of either of these trends to seek out the right advice on how to look after themselves.

Cosmetic Surgery Solicitors recently spoke to a group of mental health professionals and experts about steps that can be taken to address these problems. You can read insights from Dr Karen Graham, psychiatrist and author of Mind What You Think and Accept How You Feel or Dr Tony Ortega, clinical psychologist and author of #AreYouHereYet: How to STFU & Show Up For Yourself. Dr Earim Chaudry, medical director at Manual, has also shared some very positive and practical guidance with us.

Currently, young people are trapped in a situation where they are feeling isolated, and yet also never more exposed to the judgement of peers and strangers all over the world. By taking better care of oneself and adopting the right mental outlook, it is possible to form a healthier relationship with social media - and with your own mind and body.

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