Tics, TikTok and the teen mental health crisis

Jules Evans
9 min readFeb 17

What do you get if you cross the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual with High School Musical? TikTok!

Occasionally some data appears that looks so awful it makes you do a doubletake. That was the case for me this week, when the Centre for Disease Control released data suggesting that American teen girls are ‘engulged in a wave of despair and violence’. Apparently 59% of teenage girls felt persistently sad or hopeless, and one in three considered suicide.

What the hell? What’s going on with American teenage girls? One thing that appears to be happening is a sudden steep rise in sexual violence. The CDC reported that 1 in 5 (18%) teenage girls experienced sexual violence in the past year — up 20% since 2017, when CDC started monitoring this measure. And more than 1 in 10 (14%) had ever been forced to have sex — up 27% since 2019 and the first increase since CDC began monitoring this measure.

Again, what the hell? A 30% rise in teenage rape in three years? During the pandemic? Either a generation of teen boys suddenly became 30% more rapey in three years when everyone was confined at home, or American teen girls became more aware of issues of consent and more likely to see previously accepted sexual behaviour as predatory, violent, and rape? I don’t know — but it clearly merits serious investigation.

It would have been great if the CDC had looked into what else might be causing this apparent epidemic in teenage despair — perhaps one thing might have been the lockdowns during the pandemic demanded by…the CDC! But another factor I want to look at today is the internet, social media, and especially the role of TikTok in shaping how teenagers think about mental health and mental illnesses.

TikTok is rapidly becoming the most popular social media app with American children and teens. According to some organisations, it’s already overtaken YouTube — parental control software maker Qustodio estimates kids spend an average of 82 minutes a day on TikTok compared to 75 minutes on YouTube. It’s marginally more popular with girls than boys. TikTok is shaping young people’s self-talk, self-perception, world-perception and sense of reality — particularly when teenagers are not at school and not seeing friends in person. TikTok becomes their school, their…