How To Protect Your Brain From ADHD Misinformation On TikTok

There’s over 20 billion views of ADHD-related content on TikTok, but it’s far from a charity providing free healthcare information services.
DADO RUVIC via Reuters

If TikTok shows you ADHD-related content, you might have ADHD.

Or you might not, as approximately half of it is likely to be misleading and you could just be addicted to a platform profiting from stealing your attention – I should know.

ADHD isn’t a ‘deficit’ of attention as much as a challenge in regulating it, and TikTok is deliberately designed to keep you hooked.

Last year, I presented on ADHD misinformation to the World Health Organization, campaigning for updated diagnostic criteria and ‘official’ information on ADHD.

Our society’s understanding of ADHD is evolving – after all, it has only been diagnosable in UK adults since 2008. But healthcare systems cannot keep up. Adults with ADHD on years-long waiting lists for assessments are extremely vulnerable, being 5 times more likely to attempt suicide.

There’s over 20 billion views of ADHD-related content on TikTok, but it’s not a charity providing free healthcare information services. It’s a business, making more money than entire countries. You are the product, being tracked, monitored and studied by algorithms that don’t have morals, but orders – to hijack your attention.

As Edward Tufte said, ‘there’s only 2 industries which refer to their customers as users: drugs and computers.’ Social media is the middleman, selling the information it collects about us to companies that want to influence our behaviour, taking a huge cut of the profits.

These may include literal drug companies. Last January, TikTok removed an advert by tele-health company Cerebral, showing a woman surrounded by junk food. The text read, ‘those who live by impulse, eat by impulse’, encouraging ADHD treatment to ‘stop overeating’. Despite this, between January and May last year, Cerebral spent over $14 million on TikTok ads.

I once spoke to someone who paid over £1000 for an online assessment, a few hours after seeing on social media that belongings ‘not having a home’ in the house was an ADHD symptom (it’s not).

Although diagnostic criteria requires your life to be significantly negatively impacted by symptoms of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity for a long time, there’s no objective standard for ADHD. As far as I could tell, this person was given a life-changing diagnosis and medication for being ‘messy’.

Before I was similarly ‘diagnosed and dumped’, I constantly quit jobs, moved country, and ended relationships with family and friends. Almost taking my own life finally led me to a psychiatrist, but I’d never considered ADHD.

Ironically, the medication almost killed me, making me lose 10kg and turning my skin grey. My psychiatrist refused to transfer me to the NHS, expecting me to pay £300 for this, forever. If you’ve not been through this process, you have no idea what is normal.

Social media is great for learning about others’ experiences and making education accessible, but it all depends on how you use it. TikTok can trap us in ADHD misinformation vortexes, as we may be overwhelmed by options, processing multiple videos per minute.

The ones that give us a ‘call to action’ are likely to be profiting from this, especially if this diverts us away from the platform - but this may not be obvious.

For example, one private organisation runs an ‘affiliate programme’ for people after diagnosing them with ADHD, offering up to £97.50 per referral, saying that ‘one of our affiliates has earned over £5000 on top of his wages in the past 3 months’.

Vulnerable people may not even realise that they’re being exploited, but see this as a ‘win-win’.

As social media platforms are largely unregulated, it can be impossible to distinguish between adverts and content, fact and fiction, information and exploitation - which leaves us unable to trust others, or most importantly, ourselves.

Here’s some actions you can take to deal with ADHD misinformation on TikTok:

Plan ahead

Cigarettes come with health warnings as reminders to the public of the risks involved. Despite the deliberately addictive nature of social media, there’s no similar warnings, but you can set these up yourself by deleting the apps from your home screen when you’re not using them.

Avoiding mindless scrolling helps us to stay conscious about what we’re consuming and how helpful it is.

Pause to process

When you see ADHD content, ask yourself what the reason was behind it: why did the creator make this video, and why is it being shown to you?

Building in regular breaks to reflect on what you’re seeing helps you to pause and reflect on the credibility of the content. Identifying ‘real-life’ actions to take will help you to move forward and escape the overwhelming feeling of drowning in ADHD-symptoms. ADHD coaching and therapy can help with this.

Evaluate your thoughts

If you’re struggling with something, ask yourself what the underlying belief is that’s causing this. For example, if you can’t stop scrolling ADHD content, is this because you believe there is something that needs to be ‘fixed’? What would happen if you stopped consuming this content?

Questioning what we believe and why is important on social media, where we’re subconsciously being bombarded with information, expectations, and standards. Make sure your beliefs are yours, not somebody else’s.

Trust yourself above everybody else!

Instead of trying to figure out whether you have ADHD or what’s ‘you vs your ADHD’, try to imagine what you’d do if you knew the answer - and do that. Instead of looking outwards, look inwards, identifying challenges you are experiencing and ways you can work with your strengths.

Seek out ‘real life’ support where possible from appropriately qualified medical professionals, but try to think about what you want to be different as a result, communicating this clearly at the outset to avoid exploitation. Credible websites like the World Health Organisation, charities can be helpful to learn more, but ultimately, you know yourself better than anybody else.

Leanne Maskell is an ADHD Coach and the founder and director of ADHD Works. She is the author of ADHD: An A to Z and The Reality Manifesto: An anti-exploitation manual for social media, mental health & body image.