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Teens are using TikTok to talk about mental health, relationship abuse, and sexuality

While people have long turned to online communities to find support and advice they either could not get from friends and family or were too ashamed to talk about, Gen Z is different.

David Geipel, 18, makes a video for the social media app TikTok at his house in Bethlehem, Pa., on Dec. 27.
David Geipel, 18, makes a video for the social media app TikTok at his house in Bethlehem, Pa., on Dec. 27.Read moreRICH SCHULTZ / For the Inquirer

When David Geipel, 18, scrolls through TikTok, he sees videos of people speaking candidly about their struggles with mental health.

There have been a lot of these videos on the social media app recently, as people post honest recaps of their year. He wants to make a video like this, too, but isn’t sure how much he’ll open up.

Although TikTok is known primarily for silly videos — viral dances, short skits, or just kids goofing off — the platform also has viral memes where teenagers use self-deprecating humor to talk about anxiety, sexuality, insecurities, depression, and relationship abuse.

A resolution for 2020, Geipel said, is to share more about his mental-health struggles after multiple concussions stopped him from playing sports. Geipel, a former Liberty High School student from Bethlehem who is now home-schooled, mostly posts uplifting videos to remind people that they matter. These videos have led strangers to tell him how his message resonated with them.

“The most upsetting thing is how broken everyone is,” said Geipel, who has 213,000 followers. But “the cool thing is everybody is open about it.”

‘How can we all get through this together?’

Teenagers searching for a sense of belonging don’t have to look much further than their cell phones. For both creators and viewers, TikTok has become a platform on which people can express such isolating feelings as loneliness, insecurities, and depression.

Teenagers have driven the popularity of TikTok, which was launched internationally in 2017 and allows users to share short looping videos, from 3 to 60 seconds, often to songs or audio clips created by others.

There are videos about people coming out to their parents and explaining what it means to be bisexual, receiving support after unplanned pregnancies, and dancing to voicemails from abusive ex-boyfriends.

TikTok has leaned into those conversations. When users search “depression” or “suicide” on the app, a number for a suicide prevention lifeline and tips on how to get help come up instead of videos. On World Mental Health Day and World Suicide Prevention Day, TikTok ran campaigns in India, where talking about mental health is heavily stigmatized, encouraging people to open up about their struggles.

“It’s exciting and shows that young people are willing to have conversations even people a few generations ago have not had,” said Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “You have a generation that has completely let go of that. It’s kind of like, ‘How can we all get through this together? How can we share content to deal with this together?’”

David Geipel’s father, who has the same name, watched his son go from a “social butterfly” to feeling frustrated and irritated after his multiple concussions. He soon learned his son was turning to TiKTok to find a new passion: making his own videos.

“We quickly found that David was connecting with people in a new way through this thing called TikTok," his father said.

He told his son: “You had dreams that got shattered with concussions and ... you had to dig deep down inside to find a new you.”

While experts say people have long turned to online communities to find support and advice they either could not get from friends and family or were too ashamed to talk about, Gen Z — those ages 7 to 22 — is different.

“They’ve always grown up with social support being found online as well as off,” Lingel said. “The thing we really see with Gen Z is their sense that their disclosures online could really be a benefit to someone else.”

On early message forums, Lingel said, people would discuss stigmatized topics under the veil of anonymity. But Facebook changed that in the early 2000s, and people started posting publicly about their lives, with their names and photos attached. Facebook groups emerged as powerful places for people to talk about such things as infertility, LGBTQ issues, and illnesses.

While older generations continue to use Facebook to find communities, younger people have turned to TikTok.

With this newer app, Lingel said, teenagers have carved out an online space, away from parents and grandparents, to open up to people their own age.

Samira Rajabi, the director of technology influenced practice at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that one way people make sense of difficult health experiences is by having a space to communicate things they don’t believe that they can share anywhere else.

In those spaces, said Rajabi, who studied social media and trauma during a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, “humor is crucial” because it’s a way for someone who has gone through something traumatic to start making sense of the world again.

“If people have a problem that’s not going to go away," Rajabi said, "it’s about thriving with whatever circumstances that they’ve been dealt.”

Jaynay Johnson, a family therapist who works with teens in the Philadelphia area, likes TikTok and how it allows teenagers to express themselves creatively. But she said parents should be aware of what their kids are doing on the app and talk to them about it instead of disconnecting.

“When you have teenagers talking about real-life issues," Johnson said, “they often don’t know the answer to getting help.”

Relatability over perfection

Gabe Escobar, 17, kept seeing TikTok videos of users showing photos of themselves recovering from an eating disorder.

But the senior at Radnor High School, who now has 1.4 million followers, noticed that all those videos were posted by girls.

Escobar had previously struggled with an eating disorder and thought that with his huge following, opening up could help other guys going through the same thing. His video about his experience racked up 152,500 likes and sparked the most messages he’s ever received referencing a single post.

“It’s something that not a lot of people know about me, and I thought it was a good way I could share my experience,” said Escobar, whose father is Inquirer editor and vice president Gabriel Escobar. “Since I can reach so many people and I can have such an influence over such a large group, I just thought it was something that I should do.”

Johnson said TikTok is a way for teens to begin coping with mental-health issues when they might feel uncertain or uncomfortable about where to start.

“Not everyone is ready to outwardly speak about what they’re going through,” she said. “For teens to be able to log onto TikTok and see other people who are going through things affirms their existence and what they’re going through."

One of Geipel’s most-popular videos, with 284,300 likes, is simple. Viewers see a black-and-white video of Geipel in a hoodie talking about things teenagers have to look forward to in life. He wanted to remind them there is a future worth living for, no matter how tough their world seems.

The audio has since been used in 38,300 other videos, with people showing joyful moments from their own lives.

In the comments of the original, people told Geipel how much his message meant to them:

“This made my heart feel all tingly and warm and fuzzy.”

“I had a really bad day and this made it amazing."