Experts concerned about ‘pseudoscience’ on social media

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Experts say mental health advice on social media platforms should be viewed with caution. Ivan Pantich/Getty Images
  • Online social platforms have increased the visibility and discussion of mental health topics.
  • Not all mental health information shared online is necessarily accurate, evidence-based, or even well-intentioned.
  • Experts say people with mental health problems may be particularly vulnerable to these types of messages.

Anyone can create a TikTok account.

For the purposes of keeping in touch with friends and family, this can be a simple and effective tool.

However, as you might expect—or perhaps you’ve already experienced firsthand—this also means that not everything shared on TikTok is fact-based.

The same goes for other popular social platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter).

In a new book edited by Jonathan N. Stea and Steven Hupp, a group of professionals explores the potential dangers of seeking mental health advice and treatment online, and specifically on social media platforms and celebrity sites.

What are the specific dangers and what can be done to prevent them? Here’s what the experts say.

“I use TikTok and often witness mental health issues being shared and discussed on the platform,” said Andrea Tarantella, LPC, NCC, a counselor with ADHD Advisor, who was not involved in the book. Medical News Today.

“I see anecdotal advice and personal experiences being shared that often oversimplify how complex mental health issues are. People then self-diagnose with conditions like ADHD and autism in the comments section, simply relying on one personal experience posted by the content creator,” Tarantella said.

While personal anecdotes certainly have the potential to be true, experts say they shouldn’t be widely or mistakenly applied as definitive.

Experts also warn against content that promotes immediate results, and specifically content that directs viewers to make a purchase. Marketing videos can be made to resemble typical user-generated content.

“Remember that there is no such thing as a quick fix or miracle cure for the complexity that is mental health, and consider the motives of the creator. Are they trying to make money off of you by getting you to download an app or buy a product?” Tarantella said.

Dr. Alex Dimitriou, a psychiatry and sleep medicine specialist and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, agreed.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Dimitriou, who was also not involved in the book. Medical News Today.

“Anyone looking for hope is prone to misinformation, and that’s especially true for mental health,” Dimitriou said.

“Because there are so few tests or objective findings (like blood pressure or cholesterol) in mental health, it really takes working with a professional to decide when something is wrong, what to do about it and how to measure the outcome “, he added.

Self-diagnosing and deciding on a treatment plan based on anecdotal or predatory online information can delay professional help or even cause harm.

“Online misinformation about mental health runs the risk of sending people down the wrong path to treatment, simply because people don’t know their alternatives or the efficacy of a treatment,” Dimitriou said.

Although misinformation can reach anyone, teenagers and young adults can be particularly vulnerable to this type of message.

“Younger consumers may be more susceptible to this type of misinformation because they are still developing the critical thinking needed to distinguish between credible or oversimplified information,” Tarantella said.

The brief format that most social media platforms encourage can also eliminate important nuances related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

“I have seen a complex mental illness reduced to a single symptom or solution. Essentially, symptoms like tapping or shaking of the leg are exhibited by an artist who claims to have a diagnosis of autism,” shared Tarantella.

Although the content creator in this example may indeed experience this symptom, it is not sufficient in itself to make a diagnosis.

“Also, I came across ‘mental health hacks,'” Tarantella added.

“I’ve come across some really good advice from licensed professionals who post content on TikTok, but it has to be said that these ‘hacks’ are just helpful tools, not cures for a disorder,” Tarantella said.

Does this mean there is no place for mental health advice online?

Certainly not, experts say. But a critical eye is always necessary.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” warned Dimitriou.

“For all advice and referrals, see who they’re coming from and what their training is. Make sure it’s not well-disguised marketing for some product or service,” Dimitriou said.

“Also, search the Internet to review a treatment or supplement to see if it has been validated and tested,” he added.

It’s important not to use these same social media platforms when looking for validation, but instead look to trusted sources like Centers for Disease Control and Preventionon Food and Drug Administrationor World Health Organization.

Tatiana Rivera Cruz, MSW, LCSW, a therapist and clinical social worker with ADHD Counselor, who was also not involved in the book, said Medical News Today that “the best advice should be to consider professional help. Looking for professional and reliable platforms or personal services will be the best option.”

“If the symptoms are significant enough to impact your life, your relationships, your ability to sleep, eat or relax, it makes sense to work with a vetted specialist,” agreed Dimitriou.

“If you have questions or concerns about your own mental well-being, it’s important to seek reliable information, contact a licensed mental health professional, and use your circle of support (friends, family, etc.),” ​​Tarantella said.

“If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the 24-hour national helpline by calling ‘988,’” she added.

the book itself, Clinical psychology research: Pseudoscience, fringe science, and controversiesincludes contributions from three dozen authors.

Recommended as supplementary reading for clinical psychology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Some experts declined to be interviewed in connection with the book launch.

A book is not necessarily subject to the same scientific rigor required of a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, they note.

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