TikTok Is My Therapist: The Dangers and Promise of Viral #MentalHealth Videos
#ADHD videos on TikTok have now received 2.4 billion views. These short, viral clips are spreading ADHD awareness, building community, and destigmatizing mental health. They are also perpetuating stereotypes, ignoring comorbidities, and encouraging self-diagnosis. Could a platform built for dance videos become a powerful source of health information — or are its risks too great to overcome?
“Watching this made me think I might have ADHD.”
“All of a sudden I think I need to get checked.”
“Do I call up my doctors or what?”
These are just three of the nearly 33,000 comments posted on “The Difference Between an ADHD ‘Actor’ and a Person Who Truly Has It,” a one-minute-long TikTok video by @xmaaniiix, a young Hawaiian with 290,000 followers but no formal training in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Still, her personal and engaging video has received 2.2 million likes — nearly as staggering as the 2.6 million likes showered on “ADHD in Girls,” a video by self-proclaimed “mental-health advocate” @peterhyphen. His collection of #ADHD videos has garnered an impressive 9.7 million likes, though he cites no sources and likewise has no medical credentials.
How #ADHD Caught Fire on TikTok
The #ADHD channel on TikTok — the social media platform comprising short video clips of coordinated dances, hopeful singers, and bored quaranteens — now boasts 2.4 billion views. Yes, billion. TikTok has 1 billion active users in 150 countries, including roughly 100 million Americans every month. Its popularity and a flood of new content posted during the pandemic has caused an undeniable spike in ADHD awareness, particularly among adolescents and young adults.
At best, ADHD TikTok destigmatizes mental disorders, fosters community, and makes life-changing research accessible to a new demographic. At worst, it leads to dangerous self-diagnosis, overwhelms unqualified content creators with direct requests for help, and perpetuates untruths that further stigmatize individuals with ADHD.
The question with which ADHD professionals and caregivers are grappling today is this: Do the benefits of #ADHDTikTok outweigh its risks, or vice versa?
Benefit #1: TikTok Makes ADHD Strategies Accessible
The cadre of ADHD TikTokers includes comic illustrator Dani Donovan, chef and podcast co-host Erik Gude, and psychology and neuroscience student @ADHaDult, among many others. Most creators don’t monetize their content; they share personal anecdotes and other people’s research. But some do link to PayPal or Venmo accounts for donations and some even become ambassadors for their mental illness.
Though in fewer numbers, licensed psychiatrists and therapists do contribute their ADHD-expertise to TikTok as well. Dr. Edward Hallowell, an esteemed ADHD psychiatrist and author, began posting daily “NedTalks” on TikTok last September, after a friend convinced him the 60-second format perfectly suited an ADHD audience. Since then, @drhallowell has earned over 4.5 million views and nearly 100,000 followers.
“I have patients saying they’re addicted to TikTok, so I wanted to find out what this was,” Dr. Hallowell said. “It was a lot of very entertaining, imaginative and creative content — it was like an ADHD field that was very fertile.”
Dr. Hallowell offers quick bits of advice for dealing with frustration, managing chaos, and remembering to eat breakfast. He says his goal is to help viewers who identify with his videos, and to encourage those with undiagnosed and/or untreated ADHD to seek professional help.
“I’m trying to do a service to educate the public,” Dr. Hallowell said. “[ADHD] is a good news diagnosis! Not knowing you have it is the real danger… then you don’t know why your best efforts don’t succeed.”
Risk #1: TikTok Confuses Content Creators with Experts
Peter Wallerich-Neils, of the popular @peterhyphen, is a 31-year-old retail manager from Tacoma, Washington. He made ADHD his dominant theme last June, after his “Symptoms of ADHD I Wish I’d Known About Sooner” series went viral, garnering 6.4 million views. More than 65,800 people commented on his video about ADHD in girls, which highlights symptoms of predominantly inattentive type ADHD such as daydreaming and misunderstood symptoms like emotional dysregulation.
“All of a sudden, a ton of people who have ADHD or who weren’t diagnosed with ADHD and thought maybe they had it, saw me speaking up about something that they realize is a part of their everyday life,” said Wallerich-Neils, who has received thousands of messages from viewers thanking him — and many also asking for medical advice.
Catie Osborn is a 32-year-old actor whose @catieosaurus video series presents research on topics that fall outside the mainstream, such as the link between ADHD and comorbid disorders like anxiety, mood and eating disorders, chronic pain, and sexual dysfunction.
“Nobody ever told me that people with ADHD have a higher likelihood of having eating disorders or being predisposed to addiction,” Osborn said. “That is information that should be on the front page of the brochure, not something that some random person on TikTok tells you in 15 seconds!”
Osborn said she receives about 100 direct messages every day, mostly from teenagers who lack a support system or worry about talking to their doctors and parents.
“Some days it gets really hard,” she said. “I get Instagram messages at two o’clock in the morning from people who are like, ‘I’m thinking about killing myself, are you awake?’ and I’m just like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not qualified to handle this.’”
Risk #2: TikTok Oversimplifies ADHD, Posing a Health Risk
Suicide ideation or intention requires immediate professional help, said Dr. Roberto Olivardia, ADHD psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Having ADHD alone increases the risk for suicide, but 20% of people with ADHD also experience mood disorder, and about 20% experience bipolar disorder.
Certain symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and under-stimulation are common attributes of both depression and ADHD. Similarly, sleep problems, hyperfocus, impulsivity and emotional dysregulation overlap with mania symptoms in bipolar disorder. Thus it’s common for ADHD to be misdiagnosed as a mood disorder, and vice versa.
“When untreated, symptoms of both ADHD and the mood disorder will be much more severe than if someone just has one of those diagnoses,” Dr. Olivardia said.
Matthew Haring, a psychologist at North Shore Center for ADHD in Chicago, said his adult patients almost all have a comorbid diagnosis like anxiety or depression. Parsing out, identifying, and effectively treating those ADHD comorbidities must begin with a formal comprehensive assessment, he said.
“An informal diagnosis can explain a lot of people’s symptoms in a way that comforts them,” Haring said. “But it skips over all the steps needed to really target and treat the underlying cause.”
Many TikTokers speak openly (and often comically) about their comorbid diagnoses. But #adhdcheck and #adhdtiktok videos simply repeat information from other TikToks by non-professionals, and fail to address the nuances of the condition.
“There is no regulation of what people say on TikTok, so lots of false information can be spread with a tone of authority,” Dr. Olivardia said. “It may be a call to action to professionals to enter the TikTok space to establish authority on ADHD information.”
Benefit #2: TikTok Shatters Mental Health Stigma
Kyra Steck, then a sophomore at Northwestern University, was diagnosed with ADHD in late 2019. A few months later, just as the university sent students home because of COVID-19, she started a new medication that helps her concentrate – but sometimes on the wrong things.
“Instead of being focused on my work, I was hyperfocusing on COVID cases rising in my area,” Steck said.
But then a friend showed her a TikTok video about hyperfocus and she saw her behavior not as a personal fault but as a symptom of her ADHD. “My friends started asking me about my symptoms and testing experience because, all of a sudden, their ‘For You’ pages on TikTok, were filled with these videos,” she said. A trending hashtag was making people curious to learn more about mental health.
Fiona Devlin, a sophomore physics major at Texas A&M University, suspected she had ADHD for two years but only sought an official diagnosis last November. A few months earlier, she discovered “Neurodivergent TikTok,” which includes videos on ADHD, autism, dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Tourette syndrome.
“The more videos I saw, I was like, wait a minute — I kind of relate to ADHD a bit too much for me to just be in the center Venn diagram,” she said. “Maybe this is something I should see a professional about.”
Like many young adults with ADHD, Devlin’s struggles became more obvious when she left home for college and got a part-time job. She was habitually late for work due to difficulty gauging time and working memory problems. After watching TikTok, she recognized these struggles as potential symptoms of ADHD and sought a formal evaluation.
Risk #3: TikTok Perpetuates ADHD Stereotypes and Stigmas
Despite her happy ending, Devlin thinks most ADHD TikToks do more harm than good. Her concern is shared by many ADHD professionals: Many young people are self-diagnosing based on superficial characteristics and untrue stereotypes, failing to recognize ADHD as a serious disorder that requires professional medical help.
“It can just be frustrating how everyone suddenly starts claiming they have something that they do not actually have,” Devlin said. “Then other people are like, ‘[ADHD is] not that bad…’ when in reality, if those things aren’t treated, it can be very harmful to your life.”
Popular #ADHD videos from the likes of nutrition and fitness influencer @chalenejohnson, frenetic @itsfred, and choreographed @threedotcoreymay emphasize hyperactive traits such as talking very fast, constant distraction, or excessive fidgeting — or they highlight traits that aren’t actual ADHD symptoms.
“What I have typically observed are videos where ADHD gets used so loosely and the person most likely does not have ADHD,” Dr. Olivardia said. “Being excited or bubbly does not mean you have ADHD. These videos do a disservice to people who truly have ADHD. It lends to lowering credibility of the diagnosis.”
Lady Taylor, a sophomore art major at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, has confronted misinformation in the comment section of her painting videos. In response, she posted a 30-second video explaining: “My ADHD is so severe that it is a disability… If I didn’t have medication, I wouldn’t be able to go to college or get a job. I’d have to live with my parents the rest of my life.”
The video soared to one million views within a week, but she never meant for something so personal to go viral. One person wrote, “Wow, they really making anything a disability now,” while another insisted that she had inattentive, not hyperactive, ADHD.
“I only talked about certain aspects of ADHD, and people thought that’s all it was,” Taylor said. “And people were diagnosing themselves, and I thought that was dangerous.”
Still, Dr. Hallowell said that the pros of the ADHD TikTok trend far outweigh its cons.
“The only danger of information on any platform, is that it is wrong information,” he said. “But that’s the danger for the entire Internet. If you identify with the symptoms of ADHD, it’s up to the professional to screen out the people who don’t have it. It’s not up to the viewer.”
ADHD TikToks on Our Short List
More Mental Health TikToks
TikTok and Beyond: Next Steps
- Read: Are Screen Limits Even Possible During the Pandemic?
- Watch: How to Help Quaranteens Learning at Home
- Use: The Social Media Guide for Teens with ADHD
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Updated on April 7, 2021