“I can’t, no matter how hard I try, it’s like my brain won’t let me,” a teenage girl said in a user-generated TikTok video, responding to the challenge to get her hands on. a stove for $100.
When the teenager said her brain was stopping her, the challenger (the same teenager) was quick to draw a parallel to struggling with routine demands, such as “starting your homework” or “just getting up off the couch.”
People with “paralysis” which the video says is a symptom of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have a brain that prevents them from performing everyday tasks.
Welcome to the brave new world of teenage influencers offering pop psychiatry lessons.
Scrolling through other videos tagged with the TikTok #ADHD hashtag yields an endless list of ambiguous ‘symptoms’ – withdrawn, talkative, distracted, spatial, forgetful, disorganized, procrastinating, competitive, clumsy, prone to tantrums, binge eating , sleep – in, and so on.
There are videos showing many variations of what ADHD looks or feels like. Some suggest that although ADHD differs from the “normal” experience, sufferers may have special abilities or be hyper-productive. In all of them, neurological discourse prevails, with references to the brain and dopamine and clinical false descriptions of the “ADHD type”.
The #ADHD hashtag on TikTok has 19.8 billion views. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, “trauma response” and many other such issues also attracted billions of views.
While undoubtedly intended to be useful and empowering, these videos seem to have unintended, even perverse consequences, including what can be called a social contagion effect. Perhaps the best evidence comes from the reports of young people undergoing medical treatment for tics they only developed after watch videos of people with Tourette syndrome displaying tics on social media.
The TikTok algorithm keeps bringing viewers back to the genre of content they have already lingered or viewed. “Every second you hesitate or revise, the app follows you,” the the wall street journal found in a study using bots to simulate human users to learn how the TikTok recommendation engine works. By being repeatedly exposed to the behavior modeled in the recommended videos, vulnerable children can be drawn into unconscious imitation.
But videos on TikTok and other platforms also directly encourage viewers to identify with the disorders and self-diagnose. And many do. The comment sections that accompany popular videos are filled with statements such as “you just described me exactly” or “today I learned…that I may have ADHD”. Something more than imitation is at work here. But what, exactly?
Recent conversations with about 20 college students have informally explored what they see happening with all this self-diagnosis. The medical literature defending popular mental health content generally cites two purported benefits: it provides undiagnosed patients with valuable information they can use to get the help they need and reduces the stigma surrounding mental disorders.
Yet while the students I spoke with mentioned that they had learned “a symptomatic language that they can take to a doctor for medication,” as one put it, they made almost no reference to the disease. Instead, they spoke of the value of a diagnosis in alleviating feelings of personal inadequacy and gaining peer acceptance and access to online communities.
Almost all of the students mentioned the strong pressure young people are under to perform well and stand out as unique and special. One student said young people are expected to be “the best of the best in all aspects of their lives” and when they don’t live up to these standards, “it’s hard not to feel like you’re not up to it.” height or that you failed.” A diagnosis, she continued, can “relieve some of the pressure.” “Okay to be flawed,” said another, “if you have the explanation of a diagnosis for your limitations.”
Similarly, students observed that a diagnosis can deflect “criticism from other people based on aspects of your personality” or explain why you might have “some undesirable qualities like shyness.”
Having come to see all the gaps as symptoms of a “biological condition you can’t control”, some conclude that it’s an “easier pill to swallow”. It is much more difficult, many said, to acknowledge “painful experiences” or to accept that there is “something wrong with you” or your character. In the TikTok video I mentioned, the teenager presents her behavior as being controlled by something in her brain to counter the idea that she might be “lazy”.
A diagnosis, some have pointed out, can work almost like a “title.” Many communities coalesce around diagnostic categories and mental health issues on social media. Finding your place and being accepted by your peers often requires that your struggles be recognized as “real” and “validated” by a diagnostic label. The self-diagnosis serves as an entry “ticket”. As community participants, young people can ‘fit in’, find support and understanding from those with whom they feel they can relate.
Students also said that a diagnosis can help you “feel special” or stand out, especially if you accomplish a lot. Many TikTok videos I watched presented the disorder in a positive light, depicting the person with ADHD, if somehow impaired, as capable of accomplishing all sorts of things. Adding a “layer of hardship,” as one student observed, “shows you can overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.”
At the same time, another student insisted, “It’s not enough or ‘cool’ to be ‘perfect’ anymore.” Influencers have been criticized for presenting themselves as perfect, the students explained, and are now required to show some vulnerability. Similarly, those from a “privileged background”, such as “being white or upper class”, need some “compensation”. In both cases, students said that ” having a disorder” can show that they are also struggling. It provides an “identity” that allows even the privileged to “express their thoughts and feel included.”
These student reflections are of course neither representative nor exhaustive. But they suggest that diagnostic categories and brain language are too often used in ways that have little to do with mental illness.
On social media, this language helps its users to explain and negotiate obstacles to the realization of social ideals, but it ends up reinforcing the idea that there is nothing faulty, wrong or even unhealthy in the ideals themselves. Talking about symptoms and disorders never questions whether trying to be “perfect”, “the best of the best” or “special” might be a problem – even the main problem – because ideals remain the standards by which deficits are defined.
Far from liberating, the pop-psychology of social media ends up luring children even further into the spell of social ideals that contribute to the very sense of inadequacy they seek to escape.