How Social Media Turned ‘Prioritizing Mental Health’ Into a Trap

How Social Media Turned ‘Prioritizing Mental Health’ Into a Trap

Back in January, Vogue posted a video documenting a day in the life of a TikTok star named Dixie D’Amelio. Inside her antiseptic luxury apartment, D’Amelio, then 19, scrambles eggs, applies eye shadow and delivers a monologue sprinkled with false bravado. Dixie drafted to fame behind her younger sister, Charli — but while Charli has reigned on TikTok, dancing for 126 million followers, Dixie has assumed the role of whipping girl, earning her own 55 million followers in part by absorbing the public floggings regularly directed at her family. When the Vogue video dropped, commentators diagnosed her as talentless, boring and “a bratty white girl who has leeched off her sister’s fame.”

Then, last month, a different document of Dixie’s life appeared. Her family had acquired a Hulu reality series, “The D’Amelio Show,” and its first episode culminated with the fallout from the Vogue video. A hand-held camera navigates the hallways of the D’Amelios’ home, a modernist slab wedged into the Hollywood Hills. A flatlining noise suggests the chaos of a medical emergency. We find Dixie crumpled on a bed while her parents, Marc (more than 10 million TikTok followers) and Heidi (more than nine million), comfort her. “I’m trying to do anything I can to better myself, and it just gets worse,” she says through jagged sobs, lifting her crimson face to the ceiling. “Everyone just picks apart every single thing.” “It’s going to get better,” Marc assures her. The screen goes black, and a message appears: “If you or someone you know is struggling with mental-health issues, you are not alone.”

A new celebrity mode casts mental health as an appealing badge of vulnerability.

This disclaimer soon becomes a refrain. “The following episode tells a real story of people who have struggled with mental-​health challenges,” the next episode begins. Framing the family’s social media rise as a psychological crisis makes it seem both relatable and acutely serious, even important. If Dixie is tortured by the idea that her fame is undeserved, filming her suffering presents a solution: Now the intense focus on her raises awareness for a cause. The show has found not just a dramatic crux but an excuse for existing. It can justify paying even more attention to this family by revealing how all the attention affects them.

Not long ago, signs of mental distress in young female stars — Britney Spears’s shaving her head, Amanda Bynes’s spiraling online — were milked by tabloids in lurid, exploitative ways. But a new celebrity mode casts mental health as an appealing badge of vulnerability. Demi Lovato has starred in three documentaries addressing the subject. Selena Gomez’s cosmetics line promotes mental-health education in schools. When Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles exited competitions, citing mental-health concerns, they were praised. Now Dixie can document her breakdown on her own terms, fashioning it as not humiliating but redemptive.

Yet this rising awareness can also flatten a constellation of medical and social phenomena into one blandly ubiquitous buzzword. “The D’Amelio Show” gestures at “mental-health issues” or simply “mental health,” a phrase Dixie deploys as though it means its opposite. (She says her boyfriend is inexperienced in dealing with “people with mental health.”) To say “mental health” is to not say “mental illness,” eliding specific diagnoses and more stigmatized, less marketable symptoms. An incisive TikTok by a 16-year-old underlines the point: “Let’s just make clear the difference between caring for mental HEALTH,” her text reads, over images of thin women blending juices or journaling on a lawn, “VS. caring for mental ILLNESS” — waiting rooms, paperwork, medications. The self-care narrative, with its air of drama and resilience, has an aspirational quality. Prioritizing mental health becomes both a brave accomplishment and a luxury. It all encourages more investment in social media, not less.

On “The D’Amelio Show,” Dixie and Charli each seek professional help. In addition to (offscreen) therapy sessions, Charli enlists a dance trainer for sessions she says are “like therapy without words,” and Dixie consults a doctor of osteopathic medicine to treat her anxiety. But the dance instructor has a TikTok following of his own, and the D.O. is also a Lululemon ambassador. They blend easily with the rest of the family’s entourage — the vocal coach, the A.&R. woman, the president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises.

No matter how many times they are burned, the D’Amelio sisters return, mothlike, to TikTok.

“The D’Amelio Show” positions mental-health concerns as part of the human condition, but this family’s woes seem inextricable from social media. (Even the most resilient teenage girl could be brought to tears by a public humiliation involving millions of Vogue consumers.) And yet the prospect of Dixie and Charli’s solving this problem by abandoning fame — with Charli returning to what she calls “normal high school” — is treated as a sad outcome, akin to letting the haters win. Charli expresses gratitude for the “opportunities” she is afforded, like internet stars’ joining her for dinner or Bebe Rexha’s singing at her birthday party. Many of these rewards seem engineered for the show, but they unfold with frightening realism, as the family’s life becomes a march of stage-managed events.

Like Hansel and Gretel, the D’Amelio sisters have been lured into a house of treats only to discover that it is a prison. But instead of burning the witch and escaping, they remain; they are, in fact, desperate for the witch to keep fattening them up. In this they are not unusual. Recently a Facebook whistle-blower revealed the company’s research on Instagram’s worrisome psychological effects, especially on teenage girls. One finding was that many teenagers thought the platform would make them feel better, not worse. This is part of what makes social media so insidious: If it makes you feel awful, the first solution to present itself is to post and consume content about how it’s OK to feel awful, making the experience seem meaningful and dramatic — much like a reality show.

No matter how many times they are burned, the D’Amelio sisters return, mothlike, to TikTok. Even when Charli takes a week off the show to care for her mental health, she still posts. By the series’s end, she has abandoned her dance lessons; she struggled to find time, and dance had ceased to make her happy. “I think social media really robbed me of that,” she says. In the Vogue video, Dixie reveals that though she was accepted to a college, she decided against attending, in part because of a TikTok comment that imagined her being mocked at a frat party. She explains this in a casual, self-effacing manner, but it is gutting: The world is at her fingertips, but she cannot imagine life outside TikTok’s cloche of fame.

When Marc D’Amelio tells his daughter “it’s going to get better,” he echoes Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s decade-old “It Gets Better Project,” which assured bullied L.G.B.T. kids they had rich adult lives ahead. Now that a focus on mental health has supplanted bullying, there is also a shift in agency. It’s no longer clear that “it” will get better; it is the young person who is expected to improve. Later, Dixie is again dragged on the internet, this time for a video in which she and Hailey Bieber decorate sneakers. Her doctor notes that she is making progress: The comments do not seem to bother her as much this time. “You’re doing a ton of great work,” he says. He could be referring to her work on herself. Or just her work on TikTok.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube and TikTok.