By: nabeela khan
February 9 2024
Exploring the impact of social media on ADHD awareness and misinformation. (Source: TikTok/Freepik/Modified by Logically Facts)
Of late, social media platforms have witnessed a surge in interest in mental health, particularly in discussions concerning ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), a neurodevelopmental disorder.
To provide some context, an article from Creyos (formerly known as Cambridge Brain Sciences), an online brain health platform, reported in November 2023 that there were nearly 62,000 monthly Google searches in the U.S. alone asking, "Do I have ADHD?" Globally, the monthly search volume reached 148,000.
A look at the social media trends from February 2023 to February 2024 using CrowdTangle showed that the hashtag #adhd garnered 24 million interactions on Facebook and 150 million on Instagram. There were over 189,000 and 64,000 posts, respectively, tagged with the hashtag in the same period.
The graph shows the engagement around #ADHD on Facebook and Instagram. (Source: CrowdTangle/Screenshot)
Google Trends also indicated an ongoing global engagement with the search term ‘ADHD’ over the past 12 months. These figures underscore the continuous conversation about mental health on social media but also highlight concerns regarding misleading content by non-experts, potentially leading to misdiagnosis.
A Facebook Reel, posted on January 24, 2024, summarized ADHD symptoms and suggested that individuals with the disorder are easily distracted, have concentration difficulties, and are fidgety. This video received over 3,000 likes and 353 comments and was shared 480 times at the time of writing.
Screenshot of a video stating the 14 major signs of ADHD. (Source: Facebook/Screenshot)
Although symptoms of ADHD can include hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clarifies that diagnosing ADHD is complex, with no single test for its detection, recommending thorough medical examinations instead.
The doctors Logically Facts spoke to noted the prevalence of inaccurate self-diagnosis stemming from such videos, posing significant challenges.
Dr. Vandana Shetty, a Bengaluru-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist, emphasized the importance of following a proper diagnostic process, stating, “ADHD is not a one-time diagnosis. One must look at various diagnostic criteria, including childhood development and many more.”
“Other conditions that mimic ADHD, such as anxiety, stress, childhood trauma, and (even) growing up in an unstable environment, may impact attention. And issues of time management, focus or attention need to be understood from various perspectives,” she said, adding that one can’t selectively pick a few traits and diagnose a condition.
Since ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder in children, a lot of online conversation focuses on child behavior. For instance, a video on Instagram contrasted two children, one labeled as non-ADHD and the other as ADHD, based on their movements and activity levels.
However, Dr. Debanjan Banerjee of Apollo Multi Speciality Hospitals in Kolkata says that attention deficit can happen due to several reasons.
“A lot of children may have problems focusing, but attention deficit can happen due to several reasons, such as not being able to understand a subject, parental discord, or anxiety, which can impact attention issues. So, we cannot jump to a psychiatrist evaluation. Observing multiple settings and interviewing people around the child sometimes also explains the reason behind lack of attention,” Dr. Banerjee said.
Video uploaded in February 2024 showing ‘signs of ADHD’ in children. (Source: Instagram/Screenshot)
While this type of content often simplifies the issue too much, several videos posted online associate bizarre and misleading characteristics with ADHD. For example, a video on TikTok, which has garnered 137,000 likes, claims that individuals with ADHD are prone to a skin-picking disorder.
However, Dr. Banerjee counters this by stating, "Such generalized statements cannot be made." He explains that while a subset of individuals may engage in skin-picking due to factors such as urges, impulsiveness, or anxiety, it is not accurate to say that most people with ADHD suffer from a skin-picking disorder. "This behavior falls under the obsessive-compulsive spectrum," he clarifies.
The reliance on the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 guidelines for ADHD diagnosis highlights the thoroughness required, contrasting with the often simplistic online narratives.
Dr. Shailesh Jha, a consultant psychiatrist at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, described the situation as a "double-edged sword," adding that “it’s good that people are aware but unsure of what kind of information they are accessing and how correct it is. So, the bigger challenge is not information, but not having filtered information on the internet.”
Studies published in 2022 (see here and here) examining TikTok videos tagged with #MentalHealth and #ADHD found that a significant portion was misleading and often posted by non-healthcare professionals. These findings reveal the gap between online content and medically accurate information.
Commenting on the perceptions formed based on such misleading content, Dr. Shetty pointed out, “When people come with preconceived notions about ADHD, it’s difficult to convince them. Sometimes other reasons may contribute to lack of attention, and (other) psychological problems exist on a spectrum.”
Logically Facts also contacted TikTok for a response on the proliferation of such misleading content on its platform, to which they said, “We’re proud that TikTok has become a place where people can share their personal experiences of neurodiversity. But anyone looking for advice or diagnosis on neurological conditions should contact a medical professional.”
They added that in the U.S., a search for terms linked to conditions like ADHD and depression directs the user to information provided by the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institute of Mental Health.
Despite the prevalence of misinformation, a community of doctors on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram is dedicated to offering evidence-based information on mental health and educating people.
In addition to these individual creators, organizations such as the American Psychological Association and Mayo Clinic Radio also contribute to educating the public online. Dr. Robert Wilfahrt, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, highlighted in a YouTube discussion the importance of not jumping to conclusions about ADHD based on behaviors like missed appointments, emphasizing the need for comprehensive evaluation.
This nuanced online landscape comprising creators and established medical establishments stresses the need to distinguish between informative content and clickbait, underscoring the critical role of professional healthcare advice in understanding and diagnosing ADHD.
(Edited by Nitish Rampal)