“Don’t sleep on castor oil.” Sixteen TikTok rabbit holes later—carefully curated, based on my reaction to content about an oil that’s allegedly been fighting for its place on the throne as nature’s best botanical balm since the beginning of human evolution—I was standing in a drugstore aisle looking like #Betlejuice #justhangingaround.
A manager approached me as I stared at the health care rack and asked if he could help.
“I, err…do you have any castor oil?”
“Madam, we were sold out over two weeks ago. Sorry.”
I almost couldn’t believe it until I walked into a different drugstore chain in my local neighborhood only to learn that they were sold there too. “There is this trend on TikTok…” the employee said ruefully. “Oh…” I replied.
Instinctive, personal, sexy
I could have bought castor oil from Takealot or someplace else outside of my immediate residential area, but the power of the platform I had previously mistook for some dance app hit like a ton of bricks.
I realize that my sample of two drugstores is not at all representative and the only reference to TikTok is neither “rich” in its description nor statistically significant.
However, a global online publisher visionary capitalist It indicates that by 2023, Tiktok will have been downloaded more than 3.5 billion times worldwide since its launch in 2016 – making it the first non-Meta social media app in the world to achieve this. This download number is not far from almost half of the world’s population, and it currently stands at eight billion.
Extreme spikes in social media usage during the onset of the pandemic in 2020 made TikTok the highlight of TikTok, when it became the most downloaded app in the world between 2020 and 2021. The app is so popular that other platforms have been trying the better part for the past five years. to modify and “update” its functionality, including rapid developments that moved away from formatting text and images to a decided focus on fast video preparation.
TikTok’s algorithm is strangely instinctive and very personal, and based on anything that provides clues about what kind of content users might like. Viewing preferences are regulated within an inch of themselves and some scholars maintain that they often depend on the user’s current state of mind.
Unlike other social media platforms (which I’m not active on), TikTok’s short video format is a bit like sampling a tasting menu of about 10-15 courses, where one’s interest is on a somewhat rudimentary level, collecting Between visual novelty with disturbingly clever interplay of catchy music.
Between all the castor oil benefits and RxCKSTxR-pet audio videos, I sometimes find myself looking for mental health content. When I prompt the app in this direction, the content that runs along this continuum feels honest and open.
But, quickly, that little hustle can yank a user from offering safe, interesting content to something I can only describe as troubling and performance troubling.
Before diving into any mental health-related content, TikTok offers the user a relatively good “Mental Health Guide,” which includes messages from expert partners who have developed toolkits for everyone to learn more about improving their well-being.
The guide takes you through a series of questions, including a ‘test’ of whether you’re ready to share your story before you sign yourself up. It also provides “important cues to know if someone is struggling” and potential steps one can take in response. Before you click on some #mentalhealth #mentalillness content, TikTok may issue a “viewer discretion” warning before letting you in any way.
Some of the content behind these hashtags comes close to mirroring the content on the social media platforms we are used to knowing. What I mean is that instead of watching a critical video, you might find yourself watching a very distraught person crying into their phone with bleak background music or a ‘countdown’ timeline (to the day before) of someone who died by suicide. It’s really sad.
In April 2023, a study in the US found that TikTok provides many people with a sense of “self-discovery”, but warned that the algorithm also showed a “disturbing tendency to repeatedly expose users to content that may be harmful to their mental health”.
Through interviews with students, researchers at the University of Minnesota commented that participants find the mental health information on the app helpful, but because of the way the feed works, it keeps giving them more of the same: “Then it can go from being helpful to being painful and exciting.” .
Sometimes express mental health diagnoses are made based on (half misleading) lists of symptoms of serious mental illness, without ever having set foot in a licensed healthcare worker’s office.
In examining the dynamic overlaps of the capabilities and limitations of treatment and algorithmic frameworks, another recent study found TikTok to be a “productive site” for examining mental health topics, including the ways people understand themselves in terms of mental health illnesses.
At this juncture, medical professionals—among them a good number of licensed psychiatrists and psychologists—have begun to back away from what exactly constitutes therapy and who can speak authoritatively about matters of mental health.
This study found, in particular, that within TikTok there is a therapeutic triad: “therapists as creative clients” (typically a therapist, social worker, counselor, or psychologist who also shares their mental health journey); TikTok’s algorithm as a “charismatic person” (the algorithm as a detective of what users need); and used as an emotional medium (the emotionally invested medium). In such a scenario, the more you interact with this content, the more difficult it is to separate the facts from the alternative facts.
The Therapeutic Trinity offers a unique framework that allows for unexpected types of interaction, care, and assistance. It’s encouraging if you think of the many people who might benefit from it.
At the same time, it also allows for new forms of exploitation, which can threaten traditional patterns of clinical settings, patient and client confidentiality, and most importantly, our self-understanding.
To this day, I’m still not sure who believes the castor oil debate. Kudos to those who continue to assert that there is no scientific evidence to support their content, though. DM
Florence de Vries is a communications specialist and journalist whose primary research interests focus on the areas of mental health and ethics of care.
This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.