Is TikTok or Instagram worse for teen mental health?: A therapist vs. psychologist’s perspective

Within a week of downloading TikTok, a For You page can fill up with what to eat in a day and body checking videos. Many teens are already struggling with their body image, so this only perpetuates that struggle. Personal eating habits can easily be compared with those of the app: natural salads with every meal, iced coffee for breakfast and chewing gum as a snack.

These videos are presented as wellness content and often promote a “healthy lifestyle”. They can trigger unhealthy comparisons under the veil of inspiration, be it in terms of looks or lifestyle. In reality, teenagers may be eating less or exercising excessively to achieve a certain body type. In doing so, they lose their self-esteem, fuel their insecurity and develop disturbed eating habits.

In a survey of 10 teens aged 15-17, 100% reported some form of self-comparison to people in the app, with 70% of them citing this as a common occurrence. The survey also shows that 90% of this comparison triggered feelings of self-confidence, depression and/or anxiety.

When asked which aspect they felt specifically affected their mental health, one anonymous participant said: “It’s a literal constant stream of videos showing you all the ways your life could be ‘better.’ It makes you feel like whatever you do is never enough.”

Although teenagers think TikTok might be the most harmful social media platform, therapists and psychologists disagree. Instagram perpetuates additional problems due to the fact that users can change their public image. Regardless, this is nothing new. The media have shaped the body standard for decades. Therapists and psychologists also emphasize the benefits of social media platforms as they often provide a community for those affected.

A therapist’s perspective:

Though TikTok is worsening teens’ mental health, body image and eating disorders, therapist Kate Behzadi sees Instagram as a more pressing issue.

She argued that unlike TikTok, Instagram users have the ability to retouch, edit, and even Photoshop images before posting them. This can adversely affect body image and eating disorder issues in teens, leading to unrealistic comparisons.

“Even if you logically know that someone posed at a certain angle or used filters or retouched their photos, it’s still hard not to compare and think, ‘Okay, this is what I need to look like,'” she said.

On TikTok, users get a more realistic look at people’s lives. This can bring a community together about life’s relationship skills, issues, and other struggles.

“I think that compared to Instagram, at least the algorithm I’m on, TikTok has a lot of videos that are more about showing real life,” Behzadi said. “It’s a lot about people showing things that everyone experiences but not necessarily talking about them a lot.”

Behzadi also credited each app’s algorithms — a key theme when considering the impact of social media on mental health. Malicious content is minimally filtered on Instagram.

“It’s human nature to pay more attention to the negative comments and look longer at things that make us feel bad. So we look longer at photos of a girl who we think is the ideal body standard,” she said. “Then we’ll be fed even more with these photos.”

On the contrary, she stated that TikTok did a good job of filtering negative content. For example, if you search #thinspo or #eatingdisorder, the app will direct you to resources that can help you. Videos under these hashtags have also been removed.

However, creators bypass these censored hashtags by replacing one or more letters with other characters. For example, people use #eatingdosorder or #edrecocery in their videos. Therefore, malicious content will continue to exist and teenage algorithms will adapt.

As for body content, TikTok has more variety.

“I think TikTok will also become more balanced with these other types of content, which is ‘this is what real bodies look like’ and people talking about body positivity,” she said.

Unlike Instagram, these real-world experiences that people share on TikTok create a more acceptable atmosphere on social media. Everyone gets attention and positive feedback, regardless of their shape and size, Behzadi said.

“I have actually noticed a positive effect from TikTok. A lot of my clients send me TikToks that remind them of something we talked about,” she said.

A psychologist’s perspective:

Regardless of the social platform, media inevitably perpetuates mental health issues in adolescents.

UCLA researcher Yalda Uhls examines how media influences the social behavior of tweens and teenagers. Although research doesn’t show it causes mental health problems, it has found that it prolongs problems that are already there.

“If someone has underlying medical conditions, if someone is afraid, if they don’t have a great personal life, if they don’t sleep much, or if they’re being bullied, then social media can be an amplifier,” Uhls said. “It can make pre-existing conditions worse.”

While she hasn’t done any specific research on TikTok, Uhls acknowledged that media in general has an impact on teens’ body image.

“Body image is a big issue for young people. Especially platforms like Instagram, which are very, very visual and commercial,” she said. “They might perpetuate stereotypes that model skinny is the ideal.”

However, she explained that this is nothing new. The media remains a factor throughout when it comes to considering standards of beauty throughout history. When there was no social media, this came through magazines, catalogs and television.

Similar to Behzadi, Uhls mentioned the many positive aspects of the media. She explained that teenagers suffering from depression could use social media as a tool to connect with their friends instead of going out. When teens generally feel alone, they can start a community online.

“For kids who live in marginalized communities, let’s say they’re queer and live in a place where they don’t feel comfortable talking about it, providing them with an online community can help,” she said.

During the pandemic, social media has been a way to connect with my friends and family. Uhls said that without social media during the quarantine, the youth’s overall mental health would have been much worse.

What can we do against it?

Many influencers use their platform to promote cell phone and TikTok breaks in particular.

However, it is not that easy to just hang up the phone. It seems pretty unrealistic to sharply reduce your screen time when you are obsessed like teenagers today. Instead, teens should set small goals.

Like setting screen time limits on social media apps, not using your phone for an hour, or aiming to journal when you wake up instead of hopping on TikTok.

Behzadi also advises teens to set intentions when using social media. She wants them to notice how they’re feeling in the moment instead of giving in to the rush of satisfaction.

“Set an intention when you open Instagram,” she said. “If there’s something that makes you feel bad about it all the time, unfollow.”

She also acknowledged that social media serves as an easy coping mechanism. Behzadi encourages teens to find healthier ways to deal with it, rather than taking the easy way out.

“I think of social media platforms as basically endless mirrors,” Behzadi said. “It’s going to have the same effect of forcing you to care too much about what other people are doing, what they think about you, and what they think about what you do.”

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