When COVID-19 flipped the world upside down, many teens and young adults lost access to their friends and turned to TikTok for community. For some it helped, but for others, it only heightened anxieties.
The number of TikTok users increased from 508 million in December 2019, to 689 million just seven months later, according to the CNBC website. People were left afraid for what was to come, craving social interaction — needing people to relate to.
Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, anxiety is plaguing kids and teens’ lives. Data from the Federal Center for Disease Control reports 7.1% of children ages 3–17, about 4.4 million, have diagnosed anxiety as of October 2018 — with that number only getting higher.
Zachery Dereniowski, verified TikTok creator (@mdmotivator) and a medical student, said he downloaded TikTok as a place to share his thoughts in hopes of sparking a connection with people who needed to hear them. Dereniowski said in a Zoom interview, “Last year, I went through a lot and felt really alone… I just remember feeling so defeated, and I didn’t know where to turn.” After he sought counseling services, he turned to social media in the hopes of connecting with other people who were also suffering.
Dereniowski found his community, “and it all just kind of snowballed from there,” he said. Today, he has over 2 million followers on TikTok. “People use TikTok to cope with life challenges because you can be heard and validated, or empathize with the people who have gone through those experiences.” He said people use humor as a way to cope with the hardships life throws at them, and social media as a distraction to avoid what’s really going on in their lives.
Dereniowski is studying at the University of Sydney School of Medicine hoping to become a psychiatrist working with adolescents, and is a co-founder of the Mental Health Movement, a mental health action campaign, with proceeds from a clothing line going to mental health charities and scholarships. He added that he doesn’t want to become a TikTok content creator, his primary goal being to reach people who were suffering and direct them to help on the Mental Health Movement website: “You Matter Most,” and “Vulnerability=Relatability=Empowerment.”
Licensed psychologist Dr. Justin Puder, Ph.D., who works primarily with social media-savvy adolescents, says there’s no conclusive answer about whether TikTok impacts anxiety in adolescents in any way. With nearly 463,000 TikTok followers himself on his @amoderntherapist account, he argues over Zoom that “it’s always going to come down to how you use something.”
He said that if adolescents are using TikTok late into the night and it’s impeding sleep, that’s a negative on mental health. But if people find community and helpful psycho-educational information through TikTok, that can be “extremely helpful.”
In response to a question sticker on Instagram to teens, several participants reported negative effects of social media:
Alyssa Peters: “TikTok is one of those apps that is so toxic, but you can’t help but go on it…there’s so much drama, and I’ve had it used against me before. It’s entertaining, but one of the most toxic apps I’ve ever used.”
Anonymous: “Constantly comparing myself to what people post of their best selves causes so much self hatred and insecurities I never had.”
Dereniowski and Puder’s advice to teens includes:
- Getting outside
- Setting micro goals- Dereniowksi says “If you’re feeling stressed, set a 30-minute alarm. I’ll allow myself to feel…when that alarm goes off, I’ll do one thing to transition out of that state.”
- Eating well-balanced meals
- Reaching out to others
Just know- if you or someone you love is struggling, help is out there- and it can start with something as simple as a bite-sized video.
- TikTok should not be used as a substitute for professional help*
- Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Hotline.