Most of us get our news online. We search for information on Google and get our gossip on Twitter. The internet is a trove of knowledge. What’s more, it’s often unmonitored, meaning people can share information without fear of censorship. But this lack of oversight has its own problems. If people use their platforms to spread misleading information, who’s to stop them? And if this information is about health, how do we prevent viewers from being dangerously misled? TikTok, thanks to its short flashy videos that tend to lack nuance or accuracy, is having just this problem. Thankfully, some TikTokers are trying to fight this tide of misinformation.

A Dangerous Method

For those of us who don’t watch videos about health or medicine, it may seem like this issue really isn’t so big. But studies have shown otherwise. One such study has found that of the 100 most popular videos tagged #adhd on TikTok, over half were misleading and only 21 per cent contained useful information. With the rates of ADHD diagnosis rising thanks to growing awareness, more and more people are looking to find advice and support, and though this content is abundant (#adhd is the 7th most popular health-related tag on the platform), it is often misleading and even harmful. Similarly, other studies have found TikTok’s content on diabetes, acne, Covid, and even certain types of cancer to often fail to live up to the needs of sufferers. Such content — often made by for-profit groups — showed signs of ‘poor quality,’ ‘dis/misinformation’ or had ‘serious to potentially important shortcomings.’

The majority of the time, creators don’t mean to mislead their viewers. In fact, they nearly always want to help others understand their condition better and provide a community of people they can relate to. In this respect, TikTok proves useful, with 27 per cent of popular ADHD TikToks discussing personal experiences. However, health issues — particularly neurodivergencies, like ADHD — are deeply personal. What one person may experience as a symptom of their condition may be indicative of another condition, or no condition at all, for another.

Healthcare professionals can help patients understand the nuances of their experiences, but the inherently short-and-sweet style of TikToks does the complete opposite. If we don’t raise awareness about the shortcomings of using this type of content to spread information, we risk misrepresenting health issues and preventing people from accessing the professional care they need.

Misinforming and Misdiagnosing

One of the best ways to highlight the problem is to explore a popular TikTok claim that sensory issues are a symptom of ADHD. While it’s true that many people with ADHD have sensory processing issues, this isn’t used to confirm an ADHD diagnosis. Typically, sensory processing issues can be caused by another related diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Yet, when I looked at the #adhd tag, one of the first videos I saw claimed that viewing an optical illusion in a certain way was likely proof of ADHD. Creator @professoramx tells viewers that unless they see the illusion correctly, they ‘probably’ have ADHD. Despite some commenting that ‘this ain’t no adhd test’ or ‘not true,’ far more have responded with ‘I def have adhd lmaooo,’ ‘When do I start the treatment?’ and ‘Yep I have ADHD I think,’ or ‘omg I have ADHD.’

Other videos about individual experiences with ADHD mention sensory sensitivity or favouring certain objects based on their weight and feel. These are perfectly valid experiences of someone with ADHD. Also, the creators did not claim to be sharing advice. However, subsequent comments perfectly demonstrate the tendency of TikTok viewers to self-diagnose based on what they hear. One person says, ‘the more I’m on tiktok the more I question myself.’ Another praises the creator with, ‘I never thought Mariah Carey would help me diagnose my ADHD.’

Short-form content of the type seen on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram thrives on being snappy and simple. However, what is needed is complete, accurate and impartial information when it comes to public health advice.

The Counterforce

Luckily, some TikTokers are stepping up to resist this trend of misinformation. Rather than letting misleading advice pass by, they prefer to educate viewers and guide them towards their own research. In fact, I first became aware of this issue after seeing a video by @psychdoctiktok who relies on solid academic research to inform viewers about the topic. This counterforce of creators is having a noticeable impact. More and more viewers are now able to recognise when a video or trend presents misleading health information. Other creators who are working to dispel misinformation include @dr_inna, @lesleypsyd, and @adhdwhileblack.

However, these videos can’t compare in popularity with the ones that misinform. A video by @psychdoctiktok’s has 19.7K views, being the most-viewed video under the search ‘ADHD misinformation.’ Another video by @connordewolfe, claiming that people can notice ADHD in others based on the position in which their arms rest (which is not in the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, or even a noted tendency), has 1.5 million views.

More needs to be done to curb the tide of misleading information. Social media has the potential to be incredibly useful, but only if it is monitored. TikTok helped me to understand my tic disorder. I learned healthy, effective coping mechanisms that I might not have otherwise known. But the platform has many issues that can lead to misdiagnoses and misleading ideas becoming widespread. The creators fighting back against misinformation need more publicity, more support, and more resources. If social media is to fulfil its full potential as a source of entertainment and education, it needs an informed and impartial team of creators to demystify what has been misconstrued.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.