Jenny Martin: Teens, TikTok and mental health

Social media can be a force for good, making us more informed by sharing and learning from others and promoting mental health.

TikTok seems to live up to that ideal in their own country. ByteDance, the Beijing-based company that founded the app, ensures that the algorithm only serves up educational content to teens in China, such as videos about science, art history, and museum exhibits. To promote healthy habits (i.e. sleep), kids under 14 years of age living in China cannot access TikTok between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, and daily usage is limited to 40 minutes.

Outside of China, the app performs differently. Without any restrictions on use, TikTok's algorithms are highly addictive. In the U.S., teens describe daily use of TikTok as “almost constant.”

If the time spent on the app is not enough of a concern, then the content will undoubtedly be. Instead of receiving videos about history, and science, teens in this country are watching content that seems to promote self-harm.

Here's a brief sampling of viral TikTok challenges and what your teens need to know about the dangers they face in participating:

The Salt and Ice Challenge

Participants pour salt on their bodies and cover it with ice, creating a burning sensation. The object is to see who has the higher pain tolerance and can withstand the pain the longest.

Tell your kids: The mixture of salt and ice cubes can cause third-degree frostbite and burns because adding salt to ice or ice water makes it colder. It can also cause permanent disfigurement.

The Choking Game

Calling this a game is misleading, to say the least. Participants engage in self-strangulation or strangulation by another person with hands or a noose to achieve a brief euphoric state caused by cerebral hypoxia. The blackout challenge is similar to this, which involves holding your breath until you faint.

Tell your kids: Cutting off oxygen supply to the brain can cause permanent brain damage or death. Children needlessly die each year due to this challenge.

The Chroming Challenge

Participating in this challenge involves inhaling toxic fumes such as house paint, spray deodorants, hair spray, shoe polish or gasoline. This challenge alone has over 500 million views on TikTok.

Tell your kids: Inhaling these chemicals can cause long-term cognitive impairment (memory deficits, difficulty concentrating, etc.) heart attacks, seizures, coma, choking, suffocation, organ damage and even death.

While it may be evident to the reader that these activities are unsafe, it is often less obvious to a young TikTok user. Dangerous challenges are often framed as fun games. And young app users are especially vulnerable to this deception. Their prefrontal cortexes, responsible for decision-making, judgment, and impulse control, aren't fully developed.

Teens who are having suicidal ideation are especially at risk by using this app. Being praised for engaging in self-harm is not beneficial to any person, especially a child who is already emotionally at risk. Seattle Public Schools sued TikTok and other social media giants this year due to the negative impact on student's mental health.

So what can parents do? First of all, recognize that social media is here to stay. We are not likely going to revert back to a non-internet world. However, realize that tech founders restrict their children's use of social media. Why? Because they know the dangers.

Consider following the lead of those in the know. If it's good enough for Steve Job's, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg's kids to have restricted use of social media, then consider implementing guidelines around using such apps in your home.

At the very least, sit your kids down and explain that what seems like a game (ie. the 'choking game') can have serious, lifelong consequences. A quick search on YouTube will pull up various Dr. Phil episodes with parents warning other parents about the dangers of social media challenges after losing a child.

Let's not lose any more of our kids to these reckless challenges. Social media is potentially a positive lifeline for youth if it's used with discretion.

Jenny Martin Madison Park resident and also a Psychologist