#Iamnotatrend – how social media perpetuates ADHD misinformation and stigmatisation

Image 1: “If you feel like your phone thinks you have ADHD – it’s not just you.”
Source: Amelia Phelps, Canva.

#ADHD has been trending online since early 2021, with social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram disseminating short clips and bite-sized chunks of information that receive billions of views. This viral content poses an interesting dichotomy; platforms are spreading ADHD and mental health awareness and building community but are also generating further stigmatisation, contributing misinformation and encouraging self-diagnosis based on stereotypes. Is this changing scope of health information on social media a help or hinderance?   

COVID-19 furthered western civilisation’s reliance on and use of social media. As healthcare transitioned to online, millions of people around the world became accustomed to accessing healthcare information and services in the discretion of their own homes. Though, during lockdown it wasn’t just COVID-19-related healthcare that people were searching for; the pandemic encouraged an adaptable new wave of online content and content creators. 

Confined to four walls for months on end, scrolling online perfectly suited our mood of low-key dissatisfaction during last year’s lockdowns. And so, as pandemic-borne trends like easily-replicable dances, food hacks and chatter surrounding mental ill health and attention-related disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) gained traction on social media, relatable teens and unassuming characters became popular millionaire TikTok influencers and newfound Instagram “educators” almost overnight. 

While the explosion of interest in ADHD online may have skyrocketed during the height of the pandemic, user-generated content about ADHD still remains one of the most popular health topics – across multiple social media platforms and online servers. The #ADHD channel on TikTok has garnered an impressive 11.2 billion (yes, BILLION) views to date, Instagram has over two million posts with ADHD tagged and Twitter its own blooming ADHD community. Searches for “ADHD” are at an all-time high according to Google Trends, with queries like “how to get diagnosed with ADHD in adults Australia” having received a 4,150 per cent boost in search frequency since 2017. 

Video 1: viral TikTok by @adhdbaddiewithafatty about their personal experience with ADHD

This digital spotlight has led to a radical increase in ADHD awareness – which proved crucial during a period when more people, of whom sought community and education in their confinement, were (and still are) being diagnosed. But there are issues inherent to any mental health condition becoming #trendy; ADHD’s precipitous popularity online begets misinformation and has contributed to the trivialisation and stigmatisation of what is already a deeply misunderstood and inexplicably complex neurological condition. 

This problematic dichotomy has been the topic of increasingly contentious online discourse of recent. Participants include ADHD’ers themselves (me!) of whom – despite contributing to the never-ending slew of posts by discussing having to deal with, actively avoid and debate the appropriateness of the oversaturation of ADHD content – have reached their wits’ end. 

The hard numbers; just how misinformed is this ADHD content?

An inaugural study published this year has revealed that of the top 100 most popular (based on no. of views and likes per video) videos (on July 18, 2021) about ADHD uploaded by TikTok creators, 52 were classified as misleading, 27 as personal experience and 21 as useful. The main culprits of this misinformation? Non-healthcare providers – who made up 89 of the 100 videos. The other 11 were published by “individuals who identified as HCP’s”. Perhaps most concerning, “none of the misleading videos recommended viewers to seek out a medical, psychiatric, or psychological assessment before attributing these symptoms to ADHD,” the study explained.

These findings provide several important insights into the dissemination of medical information about ADHD on TikTok and the consequences of this misinformation – chiefly being that the content has the potential to contribute to health anxiety and lead to increased healthcare utilisation and the possibility that individuals may be misattributing difficulties experienced from pandemic public health measures to symptoms of ADHD.

@adhdvision

Still bruised from Nr. 1😄..if you have over 8, u might want to look to get officially diagnosed. #adhd #adhdawareness

♬ Tell Me Something Good – Ewan McVicar
Video 2: Example of ADHD misinformation on TikTok.

 While there is (to my knowledge) no existing study on the current level of misinformation spreading on Instagram or Twitter at current, it took just a minute of my scrolling to find suspect ADHD content on the platforms and a quick search online to find heated debate about the pros and cons of TikTok’s poor regulation of this content.

Image 2: Tweet by @AdhdAngsty
Image 3: Tweet by Craig_ADHD

A double-edged sword: the pros and cons of #ADHD trending

As with any information or topic that has previously been thrust into the digital limelight, there have been clear benefits and risks to ADHD trending online. 

Some notable pros and cons include:

PROS

  • ADHD trending has made strategies for dealing with the disorder openly accessible as, though in fewer numbers, the cadre of new online content creators includes licensed psychiatrists and therapists who freely distribute professional advice.
  • The increased visibility of ADHD during the pandemic has reduced mental health stigma and has led to an increase in genuine diagnoses. 
  • ADHD social media has led to more self-diagnosis of ADHD – while this is concerning, professionals believe self-diagnosis can be the first step toward an answer (however have emphasised that self-diagnosis shouldn’t be a final solution). 

CONS

  • Social media platforms have confused unqualified content creators with healthcare professionals and experts.
  • Social media has perpetuated ADHD stereotypes and stigma – ADHD TikTok’s are proven to do more harm than good.
  • Social media has oversimplified ADHD and fails to recognise the many nuances and complexities involved with the serious neurodevelopmental disorder. 
  • ADHD misinformation has done a disservice to people who truly have ADHD by undermining the ADHD experience, thus lowering the credibility of the diagnosis.
  • #ADHD trending has encouraged self-diagnosis based on generalisations – there is great debate about whether self-diagnosis is as valid as receiving a formal diagnosis. Regardless of this argument, self-diagnosis does present the very real threat of an individual becoming attached to a diagnosis prior to receiving professional assessment and subsequently closing themselves off to seeking other treatment opportunities or finding the right diagnosis.

What people can do to combat and counter ADHD misinformation:

As with all trends, what goes up, must come down. While ADHD remains a popular topic on social media, the hashtags and conversation will inevitably shift focus. When the platforms and their users do find their newest mental health condition to romanticise, those of us with ADHD will stay behind, fighting to float in the cavernous depths of this undeniably esoteric and painfully unsupported disorder.

For now, social media users need to be more discerning when it comes to taking mental health advice from internet strangers and unprofessionals. A good start is to access information from accredited resources and personnel:

Journalist’s fighting the good fight:

Fleur Connick – The Silent Suffering of Women with ADHD

Noelle Faulkner – The lost girls: ‘Chaotic and curious, women with ADHD all have missed red flags that haunt us’

Jason Wilson – being diagnosed with ADHD in my 40s has given me something quite magical

Looking for a positive influence?

How to ADHD – YouTube

@adhdcoachsheila – TikTok

@thepsychdoctormd – TikTok

@attitudemag – Instagram

@letstalkaboutadhd – Instagram (shameless self-plug)

@adhd_alien – Twitter

CHADD – socials

Beyond social media:

ADHD, social media and self-regulation

The ADDitude Directory

ADHD Australia – Resources and Support

ADHD Foundation Australia

Checkout my chatter on this topic in the below tweets:

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