TikTok offers a community for people with mental illness, but a University of Minnesota study found the popular social media app can be a ‘crazy train’ of distressing videos because of the way it curates content .

Detailed interviews with 16 TikTok users have confirmed the suspicions of U’s computer scientists: the app’s algorithm can bring people together around videos they find interesting, fostering the community, but it can do damage if it forces content that triggers anxiety.

“Users are ready for the algorithmic ride with little ability to affect what the train does,” they reported. “The train takes them to places they may not want to be…but they can’t stop seeing it without a complete shutdown of app usage.”

The U authors said the small study was a first step toward broader research, including solutions that make social media platforms more responsive to mental health issues and people who need to take breaks from work. mental health content. The study will be presented next week at a conference in Germany on human-computer interaction.

TikTok is often downplayed as a source of dance and comedy videos, said study co-author Stevie Chancellor, but it’s become a relevant gathering place for mental health support and information. . A review of 100 videos with mental health hashtags showed they had been viewed 1.3 billion times.

People are exploring TikTok for clinical information, but sometimes they just want practical advice from others facing the same kind of stress, or a video of kittens to brighten their day, she added. Informal support communities grow around popular videos and content.

“I don’t want to throw TikTok out with the bathwater because it provides this really useful forum for spreading mental health information and sharing personal experiences,” she said. The U assistant professor specializes in artificial intelligence to identify people in online communities at risk for serious health problems or behaviors.

TikTok’s algorithm brings relevant videos from across its platform to people based on their apparent interests. Facebook is focusing more on content based on friends and followers, the Chancellor said.

The findings on TikTok have rang true with clinicians, who are talking with patients about how to maximize the benefits of social media while minimizing the harms.

“When we think about mental health, one of the things people look for the most is to not feel alone and to feel understood,” said Sarah Jerstad, clinical director of psychological services for Children’s Minnesota. “It’s a way for people to share their own bite-sized experiences about mental health issues and get support.”

Jerstad advises patients to discuss what resonates with them on TikTok with healthcare providers, rather than trying to self-diagnose.

“It’s great to bring that to a therapist or a primary care physician or a caring adult in their life and be able to say, ‘I saw that. I really identify with it. Sometimes I wonder if I’m having a hard time with it,'” she said.

The Chancellor said the study was small as each interview took an hour or two, but common themes quickly emerged. Respondents ranged in age from 16 to 54 and ranged from working adults in couples to single teenage students.

All liked TikTok, but also said the app “is very sticky on content it thinks you like” even if they hit a button asking to see something else, Chancellor said.

The Chancellor said she wants to develop artificial intelligence technology that helps social media platforms identify when people need content changes. One idea, she said, is to create a “choose your own adventure” option that gives users a choice of what kind of content they want to see.

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