Why experts worry TikTok could add to mental health crisis among US teens

By Vanessa Yurkevich, CNN

New York CNN  —  Jerome Yankey said he used to pull all-nighters when he was in college – not studying or partying, but scrolling on TikTok until the sun came up.

“I saw me not putting the effort into my own life, rather just trying to live vicariously through what I’m seeing,” said 23-year old Yankey. He said he lost sleep, his grades suffered, and he fell out of touch with friends and himself.

In 2021, he deleted the app. The positive impact, he said, was obvious. “It’s so great to be able to be sleeping again starting at midnight,” he said. “It’s great to be able to be up early and be more productive with the sun.”

In recent months, TikTok has faced growing pressure from state and federal lawmakers over concerns about its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. But some lawmakers and researchers have also been scrutinizing the impact that the short-form video app may have on its youngest users.

GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, the incoming chairman of a new House select committee on China, recently called TikTok “digital fentanyl” for allegedly having a “corrosive impact of constant social media use, particularly on young men and women here in America.” Indiana’s attorney general filed two suits against TikTok last month, including one alleging that the platform lures children onto the platform by falsely claiming it is friendly for users between 13 to 17 years old. And one study from a non-profit group claimed TikTok may surface potentially harmful content related to suicide and eating disorders to teenagers within minutes of them creating an account.

TikTok is far from the only social platform to be scrutinized by lawmakers and mental health experts for its impact on teens. Top execs from several companies, including TikTok, have been grilled in Congress on the matter. And this week, Seattle Public Schools sued social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube alleging the platforms have been “causing a youth mental health crisis,” making it hard for the school system “to fulfill its educational mission.”

But psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge said TikTok’s algorithm in particular is “very sophisticated” and “very sticky,” which keeps teens engaged on the platform longer. TikTok has amassed more than one billion global users. Those users spent an average of an hour and a half per day on the app in last year, more than any other social media platform, according to the digital analytics platform SensorTower.

“A lot of teens describe the experience of going on TikTok and intending to spend 15 minutes and then they spend two hours and or more. That’s problematic because the more time a teen spends on social media, the more likely he or she is to be depressed. And that’s particularly true for at the extremes of use,” said Twenge.

That may only compound a longer-term rise in mental health issues, partly fueled by technology. Psychologists say as smartphones and social media grew around 2012, so did the rate of depression among teens. Between 2004 and 2019 the rate of teen depression nearly doubled, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And for teen girls its worse. By 2019, one in four US girls have experienced clinical depression, according to Twenge.

TikTok said it has tools to help users set limits for how long they spend on the app each day. TikTok also continues to roll out other safeguards for its users, including ways to filter out mature or “potentially problematic” videos and more parental controls.

“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 said in a statement to CNN.

The company said between April and June of 2022 it removed 93.4% of videos on self-harm and suicide from the app before they were ever viewed. But teens say it’s not the most egregious videos that keep them engaged. It’s the content programmed to them in the “For You” section of the app.

“It’s so curated to you,” said Angelica Faustino, an 18-year-old sophomore at the University at Buffalo, who says she spends 3 to 4 hours a day on TikTok.

“There is a lot of body checking on TikTok – a lot of people showing off things about themselves that are maybe unachievable. You see if enough times you are like maybe I should be that way,” said Faustino.

For all the concerns, however, there are signs that TikTok and other social networks can have a positive impact on younger users, too.

The majority of teens say social media can be a space for connection and creativity, according to Pew Research. Eight in 10 teens ages 13-17 say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends lives and 71% say social media is a place they can be creative, according to Pew.

And some in Gen Z, the generation that has been raised on TikTok, have found unique opportunities on the platform.

Hannah Williams spends her time on TikTok running her business, Salary Transparent Street. She interviews everyday Americans about the salary they make at their jobs, providing pay transparency to her nearly 1 million followers.

“I quit my job in May of 2022 to work on my social media page on Tik Tok full time because I saw a great opportunity to do something with my career,” said 26 year-old Williams.

“I think it’s interesting that we can try to use social media to really impact the world for good,” she said, “and I’m hoping that’s what happens.”

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