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Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss

By Rebecca Dickson

Rebecca writes about how TikTok’s use of language could affect us in the long run.

A TikTok content creator with absolutely no qualifications has told you you’re being gaslighted, so naturally, it must be true. The use of psychological terminology is becoming increasingly common on social media platforms, with videos discussing abuse and gaslighting garnering billions of views on TikTok. On one hand, it is amazing to see knowledge around abusive behaviour being shared online, and accessing this knowledge on social media platforms can be less intimidating than visiting a GP or a counsellor. However, does using these terms excessively mean that these issues become trivialised? Does their meaning get lost in translation? 

Well, yes. 

“Gaslighting” has been a term used by professionals for decades. The phrase has been popularised in the past decade however, being awarded runner-up for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2018. Incidentally, the winner was “toxic”, another widely used word for describing faults or troubles within a relationship. This rise in popularity could be attributed to several events, including the release of books such as Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel Girl on the Train, where the protagonist’s husband takes advantage of her blackouts to convince her of events that never happened. Notably, the word “gaslight” was widely used throughout Harvey Weinstein’s infamous abuse case to describe his tactics of distorting the reality of the women he preyed on. 

With its rise in popularity, “gaslighting” is now used as a more colloquial term steering dangerously away from its original meaning. Highlighting some of the problems with the misuse of the word, Robin Stern – the co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence – said “Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you. That’s not what gaslighting is.” It is important to recognise the distinction between gaslighting in the more colloquial sense, and gaslighting from a psychological standpoint. Psychological gaslighting is manipulation over extended periods of time that can make someone question their reality. The gravity of this issue is often lost in 15-second videos describing one sentence or specific action as gaslighting. 

TikTok specifically has a rather young audience with 32.5% of its user base being between the ages of 10-19 years old. At such a young age, it’s doubtful that children will be able to fully comprehend the mature and complex terms we often see used on social media. Instead, children may misinterpret the meaning of these terms and, seeing how the meaning has been lost on TikTok, young people may even be inclined to alter their own behaviour excessively to avoid being accused of gaslighting or being abusive. At such a pivotal age of developing your relationship skills, excessive exposure to complex content explained by people who are not qualified to be discussing such issues could mean they will be left with a skewed perception of relationships.

Now, “gaslight” isn’t the only word that has made its way from psychological jargon to general vocabulary, with the meaning being butchered along the way. It is very common to hear terms such as “narcissist” or “love-bombing” used in ways that differ greatly from their real meaning. The issue with the use of these phrases online is that they are often being used to represent a meaning that they weren’t initially intended for. Young people are usually unaware of the original meaning of these terms, and so might take them lightly. The issue is that accusing someone of being abusive, or a narcissist, should never be a choice that’s made lightly.  

For victims of gaslighting, as the meaning of the word has gradually been lost, understanding of the concept is no longer about spreading awareness, rather it has begun to create confusion about the subject. The same can be said for the use of all psychological terms online. If we dilute the meaning of terminology used to describe abuse in relationships, over time it affects our perception of this abuse. The more we trivialise the issue, and exploit it for TikTok content, the fewer victims are taken seriously. So while yes, it is good to raise awareness of these difficult topics, this is something that should be handled carefully. Most importantly these issues should be handled by professionals, and not unqualified TikTok stars looking to turn a profit. 


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