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U of M researchers look into how TikTok is affecting our mental health

Through interviews with TikTok users, the team found that the platform provided many people with a sense of self-discovery and community, but not without challenges.

MINNEAPOLIS — "At the U of M, I do research in human-computer interaction, social media, and AI for mental health," said Assistant Professor, Stevie Chancellor.

Chancellor is the author of a new study - focused on TikTok - as it continues to grow in popularity across the globe.

"We were really curious about what's going on on TikTok," she said. "There's been tons of news reports, both about TikTok being this wonderful place to find yourself and identify in communities you are really excited about."

But with the benefits, there are challenges - especially when it comes to mental health.

"We actually interviewed 16 participants about their experience, using TikTok to find and consume mental health content," she said. "The study took about 4 or 5 months to run and the interviews were really long."

Some of the benefits of the app, Chancellor says include "connection to people outside of your community about topics important to them."

While she says the app can be great for showing you new content that fits your interests, it can also lead to a rabbit hole of negative content that's nearly impossible to escape.

"TikTok is a short-form video platform driven by the "For you" page, this is what we call a recommender system," she said.

"That content starts to spiral," she said. "It was either get off TikTok and stop using the platform or drudge through all of this hurtful and triggering content."

“TikTok is a huge platform for mental health content,” said Ashlee Milton, first author of the paper and a University of Minnesota computer science and engineering Ph.D. student. “People tend to gravitate toward social media to find information and other people who are going through similar situations. A lot of our participants talked about how helpful this mental health information was. But at some point, because of the way the feed works, it’s just going to keep giving you more and more of the same content. And that’s when it can go from being helpful to being distressing and triggering.”

Now - the group is working to curb any potential long-term negative effects.

"It's important for us to come together and figure out how to handle TikTok," she said.

The researchers’ study will be published in the proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. They will be presenting their research at the upcoming conference on April 23-28.

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