Newswise — Research from Indiana University's Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces explores how social media aids the spread of misinformation about mental health treatments when unqualified users make claims without scientific backing or state personal experience as fact.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, focused on posts about cognitive behavioral therapy – a form of psychological treatment aimed to reduce symptoms of mental health conditions – on TikTok and how users felt about their own experiences and tried to educate others on their knowledge of the therapy. It found both self-proclaimed mental health professionals and lay people play equal parts in spreading negative attitudes and false information.

"It has been well-established that social media has been used to promote misinformation about important topics like COVID-19 and politics, for example, in the 2016 US presidential election," said Lorenzo-Luaces, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. "We wanted to study cognitive behavioral therapy specifically because for a lot of people, there is a doubt about whether treatment will be helpful, and people use social media to try to find out more about treatments."

TikTok was the studied social media platform because it is newer, and it is especially popular among youth who may be more vulnerable to misinformation. According to Sprout Social, TikTok has over one billion monthly active users and the United States has the largest audience of any other country. 

To conduct the research, Lorenzo-Luaces and his team searched for the term "cognitive behavioral therapy" on TikTok and viewed the first 50 videos to identify themes for later analysis. Two months later, after having developed a codebook of themes, the team searched again and identified 200 videos to rate on the overall tone, the qualification of the TikTok user and whether the user had undergone cognitive behavioral therapy themselves.

Overall, the researchers found that 77 percent of the videos analyzed had a positive undertone. However, they also found instances of criticism that cognitive behavioral therapy does not work for people with a history of trauma, individuals experiencing systematic oppression or people diagnosed with autism or ADHD.

Lorenzo-Luaces said this finding was surprising because cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the few therapies that has been thoroughly researched in these sociodemographic groups. He noted that the social media users making these claims and even going as far as to say cognitive behavioral therapy is harmful, even though they had little to no evidence to support their statements.

"I don't think people should rely on social media for their health information," Lorenzo-Luaces said. "It makes sense to check with other patients about what their experience with a treatment was, but the problem is that when you do that, you usually are not getting the full context of the treatment that the person went through. You don't know what qualifications their provider had or even if the person actually did the treatment." 

Other authors include Clare Dierckman, clinical psychological sciences and informatics major at IU Bloomington, and Sydney Adams, IU Bloomington alumnus and research associate in the developmental psychotherapy lab at IU Bloomington. 

Journal Link: Journal of Medical Internet Research 2023