Social media use can have detrimental impacts on the mental health of children and adolescents. In Psychiatric Times’ special Halloween series ‘Scariest in Psychiatry,’ Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, talks about when it’s time to set limits.

Halloween is right around the corner, and this is a time that many enjoy experiencing haunted houses, dressing up, adorning their homes with creepy decorations, and watching scary movies filled with terrifying creatures, things that are hidden in the dark, and paranormal and supernatural entities. However, as a psychiatrist, what I find scarier than any of these things is something we all deal with on a daily basis: the damage that excessive social media use is causing on our society. Our culture glorifies celebrities and gaining exposure over various media platforms, and social media has provided the opportunity for such success to a much greater number of people. Individuals often utilize these mediums to espouse opinions and misinformation that is often consumed by users as fact. This is every mental health professional’s worst nightmare. 

People, especially children and adolescents, are particularly vulnerable to influence from those they are exposed to over social media. Their tips and advice are often blindly followed regardless of whether there is any indication they have the knowledge or authority to share any true guidance on the topic being discussed. These social media influencers may lead viewers to diagnose themselves with mental health disorders without proper evaluation and assessment from trained professionals. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a prime example of this. One of the main concerns about online ADHD diagnoses revolves around the fact that virtual tools are not able to consider the patient as a whole and cannot appreciate what a person is experiencing in their daily life. People are not considering the numerous comorbidities that can masquerade as ADHD. Many physicians are noticing patients, especially adults, coming to their clinics with a self-diagnosis that is questionable and, at times, completely baseless. What is especially concerning is the fact that many patients come in insisting on a specific medication for treatment, such as Adderall, and have a sense that their doctor is doing them a disservice or neglecting their wellbeing if any other treatment modalities are suggested. 

The pandemic has worsened this, since the amount of time that is spent online has greatly increased, especially for teens that were starving for things to do and occupy their time during lockdown and school closures. What does not help matters is the algorithm media platforms use to try and lock viewers in and retain their attention continuously. Spent the time to watch a video you found interesting on borderline personality disorder (BPD)? Well, YouTube wants your eyes to remain glued to the screen, so you are bombarded with another video that piques your curiosity. Before you know it, you have spent the next hour going down the rabbit hole of numerous YouTubers providing an incredibly superficial review of signs and symptoms to help you identify and diagnose BPD, some options on how to manage it which often include unproven self-help tools, and the potential prognosis and treatment outcomes without any encouragement to seek out a professional’s opinion. 

Platforms such as YouTube and TikTok prioritize engagement over the mental health of their consumers. After a user watches a few videos in a row on the same topic, the algorithm seemingly becomes convinced that this is now their sole interest in life, feeding them with further options to view on the subject. Why is this so problematic? Imagine a teen spending their time watching a couple of videos about people discussing their battle with self-mutilating behavior. Their feed is now inundated with several more videos about cutting behavior. Continuous exposure to this can result in a person’s depression being progressively worsened by them watching a stream of such content.  

Social media usage has been linked to increased depression, anxiety, parasuicidal behaviors, and body dysmorphia. Many of these social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be hotspots for spreading hurtful rumors, lies, and abuse that can leave lasting emotional scars. 

While bringing awareness to the importance of self-care and acknowledging the dangers of ignoring mental health is surely positive, there is plenty of damage being done in the process, even though most have good intentions. People fighting to destigmatize mental health are often inadvertently causing harm to impressionable viewers that are desperately searching for answers as to why they feel so different and desire a quick and easy fix to their problems.  

Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.


Zishan Khan, MD

Frisco, TX

Dr. Zishan Khan is board-certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. Dr. Khan primarily treats children, adolescents, and young adults suffering from ADHD, anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues that often keep them from reaching their full potential. He works with patients of various cultural and professional backgrounds, helping people improve their lives and conquer their struggles. He prides himself on ... Read Full Bio »

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