Trauma- books about it dominate bestseller’s list, movies exploit it and prosper at the box office, new social media trends about it pop up everyday: undeniably, pop culture is obsessed with the idea of trauma.
The definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is detailed. A person must exhibit a specified number of symptoms from different categories, or “criteria.” For example, one such criterion is that the “traumatic event is persistently re-experienced.” The symptoms in this category are: “unwanted upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders, [and] physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders.” A person must display symptoms from each respective category in order to qualify for a diagnosis. As society begins to more deeply explore the idea of trauma,, many are asking- is the term “trauma” applicable to experiences beyond what is outlined in the DSM-5?
TikTok is a hotbed for society’s fixation on trauma. One facet of this is TikTok’s trauma content creators who make videos about what constitutes a “trauma response” and other topics surrounding trauma. These videos tend to present a generic set of symptoms as an indication that the viewer might have experienced trauma. Many of these content creators promote self-diagnosis by suggesting that exhibiting even one of these “trauma symptoms” is equivalent to a clinical diagnosis. The symptoms might be traits like “perfectionism” or “people-pleasing.” The “side” of TikTok content could be compared to astrology- a set of generic traits that claim to describe only some.
There are many reasons why many medical professionals are skeptical of the growing trend of online self-diagnosis. One doctor from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr. Jon Van Niekerk, expresses his worries about the prevalence of unregulated content by those claiming to be mental health experts: “you could be giving someone reassurance, when really that’s not what they need.” He explains that, “a lot of the time when people come and see their GPs … we’ll do physical examinations to make sure that [the symptoms aren’t part of] an underlying physical health problem.” Even those TikTok content creators with legitimate credentials cannot possibly take their viewers’ physical health issues into account. Mental health is nuanced, and a self-diagnosis often struggles to take into account the many interacting factors.
This is not to say that using social media to discuss mental health is inherently harmful. Given the many barriers to accessing mental healthcare and steadily climbing rates of mental illness among teens, is it so bad to start a conversation?
To this point, there are alternate questions that warrant conversation: should people, particularly young audiences on TikTok, feel they need to fit a certain set of criteria to validate their pain? Is it healthy or beneficial to search for a community united solely around the worst things that have ever happened to them? Does a preoccupation with one’s trauma do a disservice to someone as a three dimensional person?
Outside the realm of trauma, social media has also been shown to negatively impact the mental health of adolescents. In 2021, research conducted by Facebook about its effect on its young user’s mental health was leaked to the press. One worrying finding is that 40% of female Instagram users in the US and UK began to describe themselves as “unattractive” after joining the app.
TikTok also has negatively impacted the body image of young girls. One researcher from the University of Sheffield, Ysabel Gerrard, explains how TikTok’s algorithm funnels young girls towards content that promotes eating disorders: “it takes little more than 30 seconds to find a pro-eating disorder account on TikTok, and once a user is following the right people, their ‘For You’ page will quickly be flooded with content from similar users,” she says. “This is because TikTok is essentially designed to show you what it thinks you want to see.”
While these findings may be bleak, there is still hope through the exercise of compassion. Self-compassion cannot be found in a social media feed: it is something that must be coaxed out from within. Cultivating this type of compassion within yourself allows you to practice resilience in the face of potentially harmful narratives. There are many benefits to receiving a diagnosis which fits your lived experience. Where self-compassion comes through is in recognizing your worth as a person outside of a list of criteria. Learning to cope with any trauma you might have endured is a crucial step to healing. Within the healing process, there is also room to recognize that you are a complex individual deserving of compassion.