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You hear it all the time from relationship and mental health professionals: the desperate, shrill plea to seek educated advice and get a therapist.
It’s not like you don’t know the value of it, but you’re still on the phone at 2 a.m. watching an after-hours influencer from Iowa tell you that your partner doesn’t really love you if they don’t post a photo of you on their Instagram at least once a week.
User-generated content and unwarranted targeting go hand in hand. Which means platforms like TikTok and Instagram are flooded with advice and “info” videos like this one.
TikTok in particular, a platform with more than 1 billion monthly users, has become the culprit of uneducated advice. And it’s not that there aren’t professionals on the platform. There are tons of qualified therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors doing their best to help people who can’t afford therapy by creating video content that can be viewed for free, including Shani Tran, LPCC, and David Puder, MD.
But on a platform driven by its algorithm, the more relationship-based videos you watch, the more likely TikTok will start serving you seemingly similar content from people, just without the education and qualifications to make a copy of it. safety Maybe you started out with a steak, but now you’re just eating a Macca’s cheeseburger.
So, with so much legitimate information out there about relationships and mental health, why do we turn to TikTok?
The relationship advice on the app has two distinct extremes: the most egregious content stream seems to be focused on Alpha Male/Pickup artist culture – the Andrew Tates and Good Bro Bad Bro’s of this world, usually boys tell you why men are physiologically superior. and why “females” are brainless boobs on legs looking for a dominant alpha to put them in their place. You might run into some muppet who has never felt the love of another person in his life declaring that women are like horses in a stable and you have to maintain a healthy rotation of horses. It’s the closest you can get to being an incel without buying an AK-47.
On the other end, you’ll find generally feminine people who will go out of their way to convince you that your boyfriend is toxic if he does anything other than openly adore you 24/7. Does he ever question your opinion? toxic If you don’t click with your friends? toxic If he needs time alone? TOXIC You’ll find yourself in a cycle of constant paranoid criticism if you start to believe that your boyfriend is turning you on almost completely in some videos you’ve seen on TikTok.
And there’s everything in between: a spectrum of opinion and theory concocted by your daily commuter. Some people are idiots, some people are really smart, some people are downright evil, and some people are incredibly well-intentioned.
Not everyone is trying to radicalize you, and a lot of people online are simply looking for community, support for themselves, or trying to support others.
Relationships are a particularly emotive topic, and people have opinions and advice they want to share, perhaps in the hope that others can avoid having the same bad experiences they’ve had. But even someone with good intentions can contribute to the culture of misinformation. If your video yelling at your ex for treating you like crap gets 3 million views, you’re probably going to make another one. Not all advice is good advice, even if shared with good intentions, especially under the influence of an algorithm that rewards controversial content.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of women are horses because your man shouldn’t have other girlfriends, if you’re on the app, you’ll be bombarded with questionable dating advice.
In the US, a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate showed that new TikTok accounts were exposed to videos focused on mental health every 73 seconds, and while this study didn’t focus on relationships, it still highlights how there are serious issues highlighted. the application
And regardless of the nature of the content, frequency alone can set a harmful path for users. It’s not unlikely that watching relationship TikToks on a daily basis makes you spend more time thinking about your relationship than you otherwise would. The most positive outcome is becoming aware of a genuine problem in your relationship that you had not previously recognized, but you may also develop new concerns about your partner that are unwarranted or inaccurate.
Jo Robertson, a sex therapist and betrayal trauma specialist, told VICE that “because there’s so much comparison on social media, it seems like people don’t really know what’s realistic.”
“I think we’re in a much more potentially damaging place in terms of everyone’s individual mental health and potentially people’s relationships,” he said.
And in our current online environment, the mammoth amount of content and the nature of virality means that unhealthy ideas can grow quickly. One of the most significant impacts TikTok has had on our culture is the way it encourages people to self-pathologize through the mental health, medical fields, and of course, relationships.
“We’re actually seeing in every field or industry that, especially young people, I’ll probably say under the age of 25, are coming forward with a self-diagnosis or a language that they may not have historically had to describe their experience. They’re doing it whether they go to a pediatrician, a gynecologist, an oncologist or me,” Robertson said.
The confusion comes as we develop a broader understanding of things like sexuality and gender as self-defining things, and apply the same self-defining ideology to other fields. In the 2020s, characterizing ourselves with language is the norm, but this seems to have created an eagerness to use specific terminology to define our relationship problems as well.
Abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting are huge concepts, developed over years of psychological study, that probably won’t come up in most relationships. But you might think otherwise if you get the world view of your relationship from TikTok.
Waking up one day and being told you have cancer without consulting a doctor would be crazy, but we feel comfortable diagnosing psychological conditions and unhealthy behaviors in others and in our own relationships without professional insight. Little by little, an online space is being created where there are singular truths that dissolve the nuance that would allow us to analyze our relationships in a healthy way.
Many people may fall into self-diagnosis when they are experiencing loneliness and isolation. Feeling part of a group or community can be incredibly rewarding, which is why so many online communities are united by individual solitude. If you don’t have a close unit of friends or family, you may feel less vulnerable sharing your personal life online than in real life.
Another, more insidious reason for people consuming TikTok’s endless toxicity: Much of the relationship content on the platform deflects responsibility from the user. It’s rare to see videos that encourage self-reflection and self-blame, but it’s incredibly common to find videos that talk about how other people hurt or affect you.
And here’s the kicker: not all the advice we seek has to come from a professional.
There are many reputable websites that publish articles and information with evidence-based research. The opinions of our peers and mothers and mentors are also important. It’s not that learning from other people’s personal experiences is inherently bad, but the point is to make sure they are people you trust and know you well. Be very picky about who you talk to: compassionate and kind people, good listeners, not someone who will judge or pick sides.
Ultimately, the best course of action if you have concerns about your relationship is to remind yourself that people on TikTok will often have no more qualifications than you. Log out and talk to someone in real life. And if these concerns have anything to do with harmful behavior or traumatic experiences within your relationship, seek professional help.
Entering a professional environment with your own thoughts and feelings is not always a bad thing. As Robertson told VICE, “There’s actually nothing fundamentally wrong with it. I think using this information (found online) as a basis for conversation is really healthy. Using it as the end of the conversation is really unhealthy.”
It’s delicate work gently unraveling people’s experiences and making sure someone is emotionally and psychologically safe while sharing and discovering such big ideas, so don’t leave it to @Laying_Pipe_69.
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Rachel Barker is a writer/producer for VICE NZ in Aotearoa.
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