Finn McRedmond: The tragic irony of the TikTok therapist

By fostering a market for phone-based mental health treatment, tech companies are bandaging a wound they helped create

It is hardly a secret that our phones make us miserable. Having permanent access to the total expanse of human knowledge, straight from our pocket, turns out to have a dark side: social media that indulges the worst narcissistic tendencies; cameras and picture-sharing apps that allow adolescent insecurity to run amok; every latest piece of bad news – from wildfires to military coups to collapsing economies – fed to us, ceaselessly.

Last year Jonathan Haidt, professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the United States. He told American lawmakers that we were watching an epidemic of adolescent anxiety and depression unfold in real time, one that is “specific, gigantic, sudden and international” in nature. Plenty of experts speculate – Haidt included – that our phones are at the epicentre of the crisis. And though the effect may be most potent on the young, it is not localised to them entirely.

Under such troubling conditions, we might welcome Apple’s latest gambit. In a press release for the latest version of the Apple Watch (a phone in all but name), the company explains that users can now log their mood alongside their physical data, and avail of depression or anxiety “assessments” to determine the state of their mental wellbeing. “Mental health”, the release somewhat patronisingly reminds us, “is as important as physical health.”

Perhaps it is perfectly harmless to track and store the inner workings of our brains on our phones. And as Apple infers, what difference is there between our anxious thoughts and our daily step count?


Apple is hardly the first to step into the digitised mental healthcare arena, either. Better Help is a direct-to-consumer app that allows users to text and video call therapists. On TikTok – a video-sharing platform – therapist content creators have started amassing millions of followers as they dole out vague and generic advice for those in “need”. A few clicks through your phone and you can find AI chatbots to help you puzzle through your depression. Anecdotal testimony suggests some are now even turning to Chat GPT to talk over their feelings, in lieu of professional medical attention.

So digital therapy is in vogue. And how does that make you feel? Perhaps all of this is making treatment more accessible than before. It has been a practice long denied to those without disposable income, after all. An AI chatbot might be a pale imitation of the real thing, and a TikTok creator somehow even less helpful than that. But this could be a classic case of something being better than nothing. Without a man in glasses and a chaise longue in an oak-panelled room, maybe an artificial friend on the small screen will suffice.

We shouldn’t count on it. Whether it is Better Help, the proliferation of the influencer therapist, or your Apple watch’s state-of-mind tracker, one thing is clear: our phones are attempting to become the locus of mental health treatment.

Before we even consider the various inadequacies of receiving therapeutic advice via your device we should take notice of the abundantly more sinister thing here. By fostering a market for phone based mental health treatment, these companies are – in no small way – bandaging a wound they helped to create.

Take the tragic irony of the TikTok therapist. These mental health professionals are building their following over an app known to engender phone addiction – as the algorithm sends its users further and further into a spiral of endless scrolling.

TikTok therapists claiming to offer a salve via an app associated with all the harms of social media is as if to say: “Are you feeling anxious? Are you feeling lonely? TikTok might be the cause. But it is also the solution.”

Our phones are already a source of doom. And the problems don’t just reside with a few cavalier therapists looking to get famous. Dr Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, warned that social media is leading to a boon in misdiagnosed mental health conditions. Meanwhile, Better Help has been subject to accusations by the US Federal Trade Commission that it shared users’ health data.

It seems relatively clear that this digital therapy craze is not a case of something being better than nothing. Social media oscillates wildly between vertiginous trend cycles, toxic self-obsession, mob mentality and relentless doomerism. All of this is bound to make our phones a difficult place to be. And along comes a therapy bot, to tell you that everything is going to be okay, from the same screen that made it all so difficult in the first place.