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How TikTok is affecting your brain and mental health

Dr. David Barnhart, Clinical Mental Health Counselor in Huntsville explains
WAFF's Kellie Miller reporting
Published: Mar. 19, 2022 at 8:23 AM CDT|Updated: Mar. 19, 2022 at 8:47 AM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - We are on your side warning you about the potential harmful effects of a popular social media app, TikTok. The video platform is under investigation by a number of states to determine its influence on young users’ mental health.

You may be wondering, how does a video app have a real world impact on mental health? The 20 or 30 second videos make people laugh and sometimes even teach you how to cook. But there’s so much more to the app and how it affects our brains.

Dr. David Barnhart, clinical mental health counselor at Behavioral Sciences of Alabama, said all social media platforms can impact how a person views themselves. But TikTok users are exposed to dozens of videos within minutes, activating the reward pathway in the brain. Young users can become addicted to the app and may seek constant stimulation.

“We have become so integrated with our phones, which has a lot of positive aspects but it’s like we are walking around with a computer terminal, constantly,” Barnhart said. “All of that stuff exacerbates our stress.”

In addition, Barnhart said young users are often exposed to TikTok videos that fuel body dissatisfaction, appearance-related anxiety, exercise addiction and more. These videos can distort our self-image.

“They begin to get this view of themselves in comparison to other people and the more of that we see, the more distorted our view of what it’s like to be the best, to be good,” Barnhart said. “We don’t have an awareness of what we are doing to our own brains.”

Barnhart said getting rid of the app completely is not the answer. Instead, regulating our usage is key; the more time users spend online watching videos, the less time they spend interacting with others in person. Barnhart encourages us to take care of the tasks that enhance our lives before getting online or using TikTok.

“A little contingency management can be very useful,” Barnhart said. “As parents, we should demonstrate that. Postpone our use of a social media app until we get our stuff done.”

If we don’t manage our usage of social media including TikTok, Barnhart fears the mental health crisis will only get worse.

“The best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior,” Barnhart said. “So we are going to see more people in need of mental healthcare, less ability to cope with things because we are not learning the skillset that we need in order to train ourselves to down regulate.”

Earlier this week, Instagram rolled out a new way to keep parents involved in their child’s screen time. You now can set limits on their time on the app. TikTok has a similar tool. Parents can link their account to a teen’s account through the Family Pairing feature. This allows parents to monitor comments and direct messages, and set time limits.

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