Humans are wired to connect, and the importance of building and maintaining these social connections can be seen from an early age. When that connection is broken, or fails to occur at all, the immediate and long-term effects can have disastrous consequences for a child’s overall emotional and physical health.
Dr. David Puder, a psychiatrist and faculty member at Loma Linda University, knows this firsthand from his experience working with teens and young adults in his practice. He recently posted a viral TikTok video that explains just how important the connection between a parent and child is in developing a healthy attachment style.
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Dr. Puder’s most viewed TikTok is a breakdown of the popular “Still Face” experiment, developed by Dr. Ed Tronick in the 1970s, which shows a baby emotionally and physically withdrawing after three minutes of interacting with a non-responsive mother displaying a “still face,” all while the baby is desperately trying and failing to get her attention. This experiment demonstrates how serious cases of child abuse and neglect damages the way a developing child’s brain functions, but also how parents who aren’t fully present when they’re with their with their children—whether that’s because they’re on their phone, or because they’re suffering from depression or struggling with substance abuse — can have a profound effect on a child’s development.
@dr.davidpuderThe Still Face Experiment- here is the first phase of trying to re-engage connection ##relationshiptips♬ original sound – dr.davidpuder
Dr. Puder’s breakdown of the experiment received over 5.4 million views on TikTok. The comments are filled with people empathizing with the parent and the child and relating it back to their own parental relationships.
“This study is so relevant to what many kids are dealing with nowadays with parents so glued to their phones,” says Dr. Puder. “This is the first generation of kids that have been raised by parents that have been very distracted by screens.”
Social media isn’t a replacement for human connection, but mental health professionals like Dr. Puder are using apps like TikTok (much like how women’s health professionals have taken to instagram) to spread mental health awareness to an audience that has been the most impacted, both positively and negatively, by social media: teenagers and members of Generation Z.
Dr. Puder joined TikTok in January of this year and has since gained over 100,000 followers on the app by posting fascinating breakdowns of popular psychology ideas and experiments, mental health tips, and a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a practicing psychiatrist. His videos belong to a subset of TikTok known as TikTok therapy, and it’s quickly gaining popularity with both parents and teenagers who use the app. He’s one of many mental healthcare professionals using TikTok to normalize talking about mental health issues and expose his audience to the benefits of therapy without having to experience it firsthand.
“TikTok is adding a lot of value to a lot of people, especially parents. If someone watches my videos and it encourages them to put their phone down and interact with their kids more, or engages their kids in more play, maybe that kid won’t have as many mental health issues down the line,” says Puder.
Mental health professionals operate behind closed doors, as client confidentiality laws require. Confidentiality is a respected part of psychology’s code of ethics, but it’s also allowed for many therapists to get comfortable hiding behind those closed doors. Mental health professionals aren’t seen or talked about often in traditional media, and TikTok offers them a platform to share important ideas that can drastically improve the way people think about themselves and their relationships to others.
@dr.davidpuderDifferent types of anxiety part 1 ##anxiety ##mentalhealthawareness ##LearnOnTikTok ##TikTokPartner like for part 2♬ original sound – dr.davidpuder
“I think people are curious about their own mental health and I don’t think we do a good job as mental healthcare professionals educating the public,” says Puder. “There aren’t a lot of mental health care professionals in the public sphere at all. I think people have a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of misinformation going around, so I’m happy to put out some real science that people find interesting.”
It’s important to note that TikTok is not a replacement for therapy. Individual and in-person therapy is important for getting to the root of mental health issues, but as anyone who’s ever been to therapy knows, it’s a big, scary first step. Therapists on TikTok aim to lessen that gap by educating the public on basic practices to help improve their mental health and help people feel more comfortable seeking the care they need.
“As soon as I joined TikTok, I noticed the app was running rampant with teenagers and adolescents that were very confused about how their body and mind works,” says Dr. Courtney Tracy, a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in clinical psychology.
Tracy owns a full-service outpatient drug rehab and mental health treatment center in Santa Barbara, California called Good Heart Recovery. She joined TikTok late last year with the goal of providing mental health information to a younger population to prevent them from suffering from circumstances that might lead to them needing to seek out services like the ones she provides at her treatment center. Her TikTok has over 260,000 followers and 4.4 million likes.
@the.truth.doctorHave you tried any? 🍊🍌🧀 ##learnontiktok ##littlethings ##tiktoktherapy ##truthtok ##positivevibes♬ Dirty Harry – Gorillaz
“TikTok therapy is a gateway to therapy,” explains Dr. Tracy. “Teenagers who follow therapists on Tiktok are getting access to therapists without having to share their own information or leave their own home. It’s broadening their view of what working with a therapist might look like.”
Dr. Tracy believes that TikTok therapy provides valuable psycho-education for children and young adults who might not be able to access that information elsewhere. There are 60-second videos on mindfulness training, videos that talk about the differences between sadness and depression, and even step-by-step videos for kids on how to ask their parents about seeking in-person therapy. Dr. Tracy says her videos are a great introduction for people who might think they’re against therapy, have had bad experiences or for people whose family, culture and/or support system is not pro-therapy.
“It’s good to help teenagers normalize having mental health issues and normalize having a therapist,” explains Dr. Tracy.
Tracy started an online community called The Truth Seekers to provide her TikTok followers with more in depth information on mental health, since Tiktok only allows viewers to post short videos. Membership costs $22 per month, or $225 per year — and includes unlimited access to curated courses, an opportunity to win private individual course sessions and admission to live Q&As and instructional webinars.
“I’m hoping that people who want more information based on what I share on TikTok can join that community,” says Dr. Tracy. “It’s still not therapy. It’s a self-guided way for people to learn more about themselves.”
TikTok is a free app, so all of the valuable information that these mental health professionals are posting comes at no cost to the viewer. The app has allowed therapists to become more visible to vulnerable populations, but what do the mental health professionals gain from using the app?
Mental health professionals on TikTok cannot give out personalized therapy to anyone who asks for it in the comments or in private message, but they’ve found other ways to give their viewers more generalized mental health information outside of the app. Both Dr. Puder and Dr. Tracy say that their goal with the app isn’t to get more patients into their practice – it
Dr. Puder has a podcast called “Psychiatry & Psychotherapy Podcast” where he discusses topics that affect mental health professionals and pop-psychology enthusiasts, which gets support from a Patreon. His sees his TikTok is just another avenue to spread this important information to a wider audience.
“My clinic is already pretty full, so that’s not the purpose of what I’m doing,” says Dr. Puder. “I hope my videos have a large ripple effect on the people that watch them. ‘How do I help the most people possible?’ is one of the questions I ask myself a lot.”
A version of this story was published May 2020.
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