If you haven’t finely curated your TikTok ‘For You’ page, trawling down the feed can be a bit of a whirlwind. Cat videos, politics, someone dancing, and then an ASMR cooking video. It’s mayhem. Recently, a video of a user making light of an illegal sexual relationship with a relative even rolled down onto my feed. It feels completely uncontrollable.
Posting about struggles with mental health is not a new concept. But over the last few years - and with the popularisation of TikTok - a new corner of the app has seen a big boom: Trauma Tok.
The #trauma tag on TikTok now has 9.2 Billion views, similar to #traumadump, which has 62.3 million, and #traumadumping, which sits at 19.2 million.
Deep diving into TraumaTok is a wild ride. From a 15-second video of a woman who regrets having a baby with her cancer-stricken fiance, to one of a woman playing “put a finger down if…” while detailing a horrendous story of a past boyfriend and the psych ward. The most popular under the #trauma tag features a girl whose boyfriend has died driving and texting while she was pregnant with his 14 week old baby. The next details a woman disowned by her parents.
Some users make light of their experiences with trending frames, some go on rants detailing the intricacies of their experiences, and others leave you guessing, laying a foundation for the popular and urging response from followers: “storytime’.
While TikTok has popularised the art of storytelling through video in a short format - perhaps more than any other app - the repeated refrain has encouraged users on TraumaTok to delve deeper into their ordeals. Often, in multiple parts.
Sometimes it seems like a strategic move from the Tiktokker themselves. If they’re asked to make additional content it leads to more likes, more views, and subsequently more followers. Trauma, as it has done before, becomes a vehicle for social media stardom.
While there’s instances of trauma dumping that can provide positive results for many users looking for validation through shared experience, for others, it can be triggering.
To get to the bottom of sharing trauma online, VICE talked to mental health expert Dr Louise La Sala.
Can Talking About Trauma Online Be…Good?
Dr Louise La Sala is a Research Fellow with the Suicide Prevention Unit at Orygen, working with the University of Melbourne. La Sala has focused much of her career on helping young people learn how to safely post on social media.
“Social media is so ingrained in young people's communication and in young people's day-to-day lives,” she told VICE. “In the past, we used to think about our online lives and our offline lives as being two separate things. Whereas for young people, it's just their life.”
“There's lots of reasons for posting online. There are lots of people there, you can connect with anyone 24/7. It means that we can meet people that we would never normally have met. That’s what makes it such an appealing place to post.”
When posting traumatic experiences online, La Sala acknowledges benefits and negatives. Using social media to talk about mental health can be a way for someone to process information, or to try to understand what they’re experiencing.
“It really validates the experiences that we have,” said La Sala.
“From that perspective, posting on social media can be a very helpful part of a young person's mental health journey.”
But La Sala says there’s a fine line between information being helpful and it being misconstrued or not responded to in the way it was intended. Often, the simplicity of social media - and its inherent shallowness - can mean the experiences young people have gone through are minimised.
“I think if you see something that's unsafe, or you see something that might be potentially distressing to others, when you like, or share, that content you’re teaching the algorithms that other young people might want to see more content like that.”
The Safer Way To Tok
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no one-size fits all approach to sharing mental health content on TikTok. It’s a subjective experience and depends on the user’s own boundaries and what they want to get out of it.
“The first thing to consider is what you're hoping to achieve with the post. Not only does that make you reflect on what information you're going to put out into the world, but it also means that you can stop to consider whether this post will be safe or helpful for others when they see it,” she says.
“If you're going to include something that other people might find distressing, use a content warning and give people a heads up, let them know that this content is going to include information about XYZ.”
For heavier topics, like suicide, La Sala encourages people to refrain from posting any information about locations, methods, graphic imagery or details about self-harm. Instead, sharing experiences that may promote hope and recovery, or processes that helped them in the time of trauma, is preferable.
“Often young people don't know what to do if they see something on Snapchat, or TikTok, or Instagram, or whatever the platform might be. Often they don't know how to offer another person help or assistance.”
According to La Sala, leaning on safety features on the platforms themselves, for instance, reporting posts you think are unsafe, will help the platform review what’s not safe. But safety features set by platforms like TikTok is not the only aspect of social media to be relied on.
“I think that those features, while helpful, can only go so far. We also need to educate and equip social media users to post safely and to post in ways that they're comfortable with posting, and to also take a certain level of responsibility around what they post and how that might impact others.”
In the end, social media may not be the problem. It is just an amplifier of the things that we’re experiencing offline.
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