COVID-19 and the TikTok craze

Like many others during the early days of March’s first instalment of COVID lockdowns, I too joined the social media craze, TikTok. At the time I joined, there was no knowing how much of an influence TikTok would have on myself and my generation as a whole. Right from the start, I fell down a rabbit hole of videos which discuss topics from baking bread to social justice, to funny dogs. Initially after joining the app some of my top creators to watch were @christine_snaps, @rynnstar, @hi.this.is.tatum, and @mrs.space.cadet, but the list of my favorites has only multiplied since being on TikTok!


For those who haven’t jumped onto bandwagon just yet, TikTok is essentially an app where people can make short 60–90 second long videos and view other people’s videos. TikTok runs on an algorithm which tailors your personal page to the content that you interact with most, and this algorithm is really at the heart of TikTok. Some creators find they struggle to be consistently recognized by the algorithm, but with each update to the app, it seems to get a little bit better for many creators.


Through the last 9 months, TikTok has taken me around the world in a matter of minutes and helped to keep my mind busy when life seemed to stop. From cleaning TikTok to bread Tok, to laundry, witch Tok, and the news the variations are as endless as the people who create them. As with most social media, mental health has even found a home in TikTok and is a very popular community on the app.


What is so interesting about TikTok is the explosion which happened during the early lockdown months, and just how global it was. In fact, in early 2020 the app had only been downloaded 315 million times, but by December that number had climbed to 2.6 billion worldwide! Of those billions of users around 60% are from GenZ and between the ages of 16–24, and this coincidentally includes me as well. In March of 2020, I was a 21-year-old college senior who had just moved back home due to the pandemic, and I was in some serious need of a new way to pass the time.


So, ‘why does this all matter then?’ you might be asking yourself.


Well, for starters this platform has helped to jump-start small businesses and has created an opportunity for popular content creators to earn real money through the 1 billion dollar creator fund. The creator fund was a way for popular videos to earn money and was implicated to help incentivize users to keep making original content. While the creator fund is controversial due to some potential algorithm issues, it has made some users some real money very fast. In 2020 the top three earners brought home a combined 11.9 million USD. Not everyone makes this much, but still, for many content creators, TikTok has become a reliable source of monthly income.


But the economic impact of TikTok is not really the focus here. Along with financial relief for some creators, there has also been a huge impact on mental health for users throughout the pandemic.

Reports are showing that the social media trends and challenges from TikTok creators have helped to keep users connected to a larger community throughout the lockdown, while also helping to keep individuals mentally stimulated in time of great uncertainty. Some of the most popular trends from TikTok have ranged from short dance routines to the new latest recipe to try.


There is a wide range of content aimed towards mental health on TikTok, but by far the most prevalent on my personal page is aimed towards healthy eating and exercise.


It has long been known that better diets and consistent exercise routines are key for some aspects of mental health, and TikTok has helped people share their fitness stories and build supportive communities where users are encouraged to listen to bodies. In the spirit of this message some creators have taken it upon themselves to share their personal struggles with mental health, and how food or exercise has helped them personally to cope.


While some creators take a great deal of caution when posting videos, others may not realize what content like this could trigger for others dealing with similar struggles. This was a rather large issue on the app for a while and arguably still is, however, TikTok has tried to help this issue by encouraging content creators to use trigger warnings in their videos and by taking down potentially harmful videos when they are flagged by general users.


Despite the efforts of TikTok, there is always a danger of harmful content being produced due to the inherent premise of the app which is to quickly gain popularity for well-liked videos. Because anyone can make a viral video there is a risk that creators may spread misinformation for many content areas including but not limited to fitness, diet, and general mental health. When the content being produced is not backed by science it becomes especially dangerous to those interacting with it.


Personally, I think when taking in any form of social media it is important to be critical of the information given and to always feel comfortable asking the creators for their sources. This type of interaction is starting to become more of a common practice, but it doesn’t mean that this issue is resolved. It is most definitely in TikTok’s best interest to keep innovating ways to take down harmful videos in order to help ensure users are not impacted in negative ways, especially while we all are in general so isolated from each other. As with all social media, there are risks when consuming it, and at the end of the day, it is up to TikTok to ensure that all users are able to have good experiences while using the app.


Some of my favorite creators who touch on mental health and their personal struggles are @noelmulk0 and @brittanilancaster who are champions of their own mental health and are now able to use their platforms to help open conversation with others, while also linking people to help if needed. For instance, @noelmulk0 discusses his past and present with mental health while sharing his daily life training for a triathlon, and so his content can fluctuate but often there a core message of perseverance. I think that it is really important for users to see such open and strong people creating content because it is often the case people do not see their struggle until they can relate to others going through similar things which opens the door for reflection.


With this said, I also think it TikTok should be aware of this and help creators promote resources for people to connect to in their local communities. Perhaps this could look like a list of helplines within countries which would then help connect users to resources on a local level, or maybe it could look completely different, but either way, I think that social media which addresses mental health should be helping to connect users to resources whenever possible.


As TikTok continues to grow and expand it will be interesting to see how they address things like mental health, and interesting to see if this social media app will help to change the standards of social media.


Outside of fitness and mental health, TikTok also connects users to new ideas and hobbies. There are many different genres of videos, and some include educational themes. Whether it is to help others learn to bake or help others learn about their own implicit bias, TikTok has enabled people all over the world to learn from each other. This allows people to feel heard and to interact with like-minded people from countries or cultures they may have never imagined. It is also important to note that despite the tendency for most users to see like-minded people, there are also times when an individual’s ideas or thoughts might be challenged which is equally important.


Through TikTok, international friendships are made and the coming together of minds has been able to take place which in the end helps the global community become a more understanding place. This sense of a wider global community has come at the perfect time for so many people because for so many of us life has stood still for the last year. Although TikTok is not perfect, it is through social media platforms like TikTok, that it becomes possible to stay connected to old friends and new friends.


The effects of social media on mental has long been a hot topic of debate, and another viewpoint on this issue can be read in a previous InSPIre the Mind blog, here.


While there still are a lot of unknowns about the overall effect of TikTok on mental health specifically, I can say my personal experience has been very good on the app. With this said, I also must recognize that I am a 22-year-old postgraduate student studying neuroscience, and in general I may have more life experience than the younger users on the app. I think as TikTok moves forward it will be imperative for the app to create better safeguards and ways to monitor what users are seeing, especially if they are minors to help ensure that people’s mental health and general wellness is taken seriously when users are on the app. It is hardly enough to leave it solely up to the content creators themselves.


Personally, I think the exponential growth TikTok saw in 2020 was not a coincidence because humans are social animals. While so many people had been physically cut off from seeing family and friends, it was only natural for us all to turn to technology to bring us back together and to help people ease the hardships of isolation even if only for a few hours a day.


It is really amazing how far social media can take a person without them ever leaving their home. From seeing different cities and countries to learning the latest dance trend or learning a new cleaning hack, TikTok has the ability to help many people. Although TikTok may not last forever, for now-when being used responsibly-it is having a truly amazing impact on its users. With all of that being said, it really is not a surprise that TikTok has taken off globally since March of 2020, and it has proven that in a COVID positive world, people can still come together safely to build new communities and hopefully to help strengthen the mental health of users through these communities.