Behavioral Health

The Truth About Self Diagnosing ADHD on TikTok

Millions of videos on TikTok and Instagram Reels talk about ADHD. But experts say using these videos to self-diagnose the disorder is ill-advised. Here’s why.

Jan. 4, 2023 5   min read

A young woman with headphones on watches her phone at a desk

There is no denying that short-form videos are playing a huge part in the growth of social media. The average TikTok user spent more than 45 minutes a day on the platform in 2022.

Short and long-form video content shown on TikTok and YouTube feature people speaking about broad and niche topics, from cooking to detailing cars to health care. But as the saying goes, ‘You can’t believe everything you read online’ – and that is especially true of health-related content.

One of the more popular health-related topics on TikTok is ADHD. As a child and adolescent psychology intern with Rochester Regional Health, Pooja Melkote sees how younger patients interact with apps like TikTok – and why having a professional perspective matters when it comes to diagnosing and treating behavioral health conditions.

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common developmental disorder that affects a person’s behavior, attention span, and learning. It affects about 10 million U.S. adults and 2.4 million U.S. children, according to the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) organization.

There are three different types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive, and combined. People with inattentive ADHD have difficulty focusing and paying attention, while people with hyperactive ADHD have trouble remaining still and limiting their talking. Those who have combined ADHD show symptoms of both types.

Symptoms of ADHD may include:

  • challenges paying attention
  • difficulty getting organized
  • an inability to stay on task
  • difficulty letting others speak
  • impulsive behavior
  • an inability to regulate emotions

For most people, these symptoms start to display more prominently around the ages of 4-6, when children are beginning to go to preschool or elementary school.

Learn more: Recognizing Early Signs of ADHD

ADHD and TikTok

People are turning to the Internet more often to seek out information related to their health – some of which is offered by practicing health care providers and others that are not.

When it comes to ADHD, a recent cross-sectional study of 100 relevant ADHD videos on TikTok found a little more than half were misleading. The study, which focused on videos with nearly 3 million views each, suggests social media apps might “use proprietary algorithms that focus on increasing user engagement and may promote videos that do not necessarily reflect accurate health information.”

Some videos accurately describe symptoms or behaviors associated with ADHD, but fail to mention those same symptoms or behaviors might be linked to other disorders. While the content creators are raising awareness about ADHD, sometimes the behaviors being described might not be associated with ADHD at all in other patients.

For example, people living with depression or anxiety will find it difficult to focus their attention sometimes in ways that might feel similar to ADHD. A child might also exhibit certain behaviors such as impulsive actions, fidgeting, or zoning out as a coping mechanism in stressful environments.

“It’s definitely concerning that kids are using social media as their main source of information,” Melkote said. “We’re starting to get referrals from kids who are seeing their symptoms online and wondering if they have ADHD. It’s important to have the right information available so the people who see these videos are properly informed and think about the right next step to take.”

Provider-diagnosed ADHD

When ADHD is diagnosed by a behavioral health specialist, they take a comprehensive look at behaviors linked to ADHD to see if a patient is exhibiting them in the home and in other spaces. This can help determine how much these behaviors are impacting the person overall.

Providers will perform screenings to look for any inattentive or hyperactive behaviors in a non-home setting.

“We want to make sure we are accurately diagnosing this disorder, so we use screening tools with parents or guardians, teachers, and other individuals to see if behaviors exist in home and non-home environments,” Melkote said.

Behavioral health specialists will also use other resources and psychological testing methods to screen for cognitive and attentive features in a patient to rule out other disorders.

Next steps

Every person has their own set of behaviors and challenges to identify and work through. Pelkote suggests if a person identifies with some of the symptoms or behaviors described in one of these videos, they should seek out a professional to confirm it instead of using online screening tools and handling it on their own.

“I think it starts with individuals using these videos more to inform themselves rather than to diagnose themselves,” Melkote said. “If they feel like the symptoms presented in the video align with something they may be feeling, then seeking a professional would be the best next step.”

For adolescents, school-based therapists are easily accessible in various districts, including School-Based Health Centers and Community Youth Behavioral Health services that provide mental health services within a safe, comfortable school environment. Talking with a primary care provider about any symptoms can lead to a referral to someone who can help in more specific ways. Social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists are all supportive and accommodating in these conversations.

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