TikTok, Gen Z, and Mental Health

TikTok, Gen Z, and Mental Health

The Rise of the Most Resilient Generation

Last Spring, I jumped down a TikTok rabbit hole for the first time. I was a senior in college, standing at the launching point of my young adult life, and the pandemic had just flipped my world upside-down. I felt devastated about leaving my friends and my campus for good, disheartened about the future now that everything I had been looking forward to—spring break, senior week, graduation—was suddenly out of the picture. 

But there, in this abruptly blank absence of in-person life, was TikTok. A digital world full of fellow Gen Z folks creating 1-minute videos that reflect our internal lives. 

I was immediately captivated. TikTok became a safe space where my experiences and emotions were shared, welcomed, and normalized. Reflecting back on the year, I can see how the app also became an important way for teens and other young adults to express themselves and manage their mental health. 

Today, I work at Hopelab, a social innovation lab that leverages tech and behavioral science to improve the health and well-being of young people. In late 2020, my organization collaborated with Common Sense and the California Healthcare Foundation to survey over 1,500 young people, ages 14-22, to learn more about the evolving role of digital technology in young people’s lives as we navigate an increasingly uncertain time. Findings show that more than one in five teens and young adults report that social media is important for receiving support (20%), feeling less alone (21%), and expressing themselves creatively (25%). 

Platform usage rates complement these findings. In 2021, TikTok welcomed 1 billion active monthly users, after months of gaining in popularity during the pandemic. A staggering 60% of those users consist of Gen Zers. It’s clear that the app’s appeal is its versatility and wide reach which makes it more enticing for my generation to open up and talk about vulnerable moments or spread personal messages. Whether it’s making up quick and simple dances to popular songs, jumping onto new trends, or just having fun with the video editing features, TikTok supplies Gen Z with myriad ways to paint our story.

Bringing Awareness to Depression: A Day in the Life

For a lot of us, mental health issues are part of our story. One 22-year-old content creator draws attention to her struggle with mental health by filming snippets of a day in her life with depression. In a video titled “Day 67 my fight against depression,” she shows herself doing everyday tasks like waking up, brushing her teeth, and getting dressed while highlighting—through body language and in captions—just how taxing it is for her to do these things with depression. 

@sydevelynbbyI’ll post more loves just been in a funk here recently 67/365 #mentalhealthmatters #series #SelfImprovement♬ worldstar money (interlude) – Joji

Comments below her video are supportive, genuine, and appreciative: “I love all of these videos, they really do help to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way”; “SO PROUD OF YOU.” This type of peer-to-peer interaction and community support is vital to destigmatizing mental health issues and building community resilience. At the end of 2020, close to four in 10 (38%) teens and young adults report symptoms of moderate to severe depression, and another 40% reported looking for “health peers” online (a.k.a. people with similar health concerns to their own), emphasizing both the need for mental health management, and the role platforms like TikTok can play. 

Using Humor and Satire to Cope

While we may choose to highlight our mental health struggle with a serious undertone, many Gen Zers are also using the platform to cope in light-hearted and humorous ways. A TikTok trend, from a few months ago, dubbed “Leaving My Body” was a satirical way to critique the easy dismissal of experiences. In these videos, an iridescent, glowing purple filter representing a misunderstood part of the person’s life shimmers off their body while they dance to a popular, up-beat song. There were tons of renditions of this, and many young content creators used this challenge to focus on their mental health experiences. One video from a 19-year old was captioned, “depression leaving my body because my mom said so / the anxiety leaving my body because I’m just being ‘dramatic’ / bisexuality dipping out because ‘it’s just a phase’ . . .” The content creator brings humor as a way of affirming–through engaging with their peers on the internet–that their depression, anxiety, and trauma are real even though they have gotten the message from others that they’re not. It’s funny, resonant content like this that leads 43% of young social media users to say that when they feel depressed, stressed, or anxious, using social media can make them feel better. 

@4chancookieAnd THATS on my childhood #fyp #foryouchallenge #foryou #bi #foryoupage #okboomer #yikes #quarantine #andioop #childhood♬ True Jackson VP theme – Youalreadyknowbb

Continuing to Promote Positive Behaviors

Don’t get me wrong, social media is not always a perfect remedy. Can it sometimes do more harm than good? Of course. One in four young people surveyed said they “often” encounter hate speech on social media, like body shaming (29%), racism (27%), sexism (26%), and homophobia (23%). This is undeniably real. But we also must acknowledge that Gen Z is making strides to manage and improve mental health by being creative, vulnerable, and supportive, even with negativity presenting in both our physical and digital world. This is what makes us both resilient and remarkable. 

At Hopelab, we’re looking for ways to use social media channels, such as TikTok, as part of our campaign to promote self-awareness, self-efficacy, and agency—all qualities that can help with identity exploration and resilience-building during an extremely hard, isolated time. As a young social media user myself, I’d like to see more mental health professionals and youth-focused organizations meet us where we are. I’ve come across many mental health professionals on TikTok who have done this by using their platform and expertise to share critical information (i.e., mindfulness exercises, insight on how to manage symptoms) and provide transparency into their services. With just under half of 14-to 22-year-olds (47%) having connected with a health provider online at the end of 2020, their success among this generation is sure to increase.

@counselorhollyReply to @katt4501 hope this helps! #therapistsoftiktok #trauma #learnontiktok #traumahealingshit♬ Aesthetic – Xilo

TikTok is just one platform out of many that highlights the unique way that Gen Z is finding community and resilience on social media during a time of so much loss. We are all stronger when we can be authentic and connected. So this is a call to jump down the rabbit hole and learn about our stories and our struggles, because it’s all right there.   

For more information on the Common Sense report, check out the link here. 


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