How TikTok can lead you down a rabbit hole of despair

According to a study by the University of Minnesota, TikTok has both positive and negative impacts on users’ mental health. While the platform provides a sense of community and self-discovery, it can also repeatedly expose users to harmful content. The study, which involved 16 interviews with people aged 16 to 54 who engaged with mental health content on the platform, found that TikTok’s unique algorithm serves as both a “haven” and a “hindrance” for users. The algorithm is displayed on a “For You Page” and recommends content to users based on their interests and engagement. While this personalized approach is helpful for some users, it can lead others down a “rabbit hole” of similar content, which can be distressing and triggering.

Despite a “not interested” button available on TikTok, participants said their feeds still recommended negative mental health content, leading some to take breaks or quit the platform. Some participants expressed difficulty in understanding TikTok creators’ intent, as some could be posting for mental health awareness or chasing followers and likes. Researchers suggest that understanding why certain videos are recommended can help mitigate negative outcomes. Although TikTok has never publicly revealed the inner workings of its algorithm, experts suggest that content that gets the most engagement and that users have previously shown interest in are likely to be in a person’s feed.