Lifestyle

I Thought My ADHD Symptoms Weren't Real — Then I Discovered ADHD TikTok

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It became a bit of a gag with my friends that my For You Page on TikTok knew me better than I knew myself. It was overflowing with young people who had the same problems as I did. My skin was breaking out, so I was served skin care advice. My hair was damaged, so my FYP delivered shampoo recommendations. I didn’t know what to do with my island on Animal Crossing, so naturally, up popped a video full of handy tips involving a plane ticket and a hell of a lot of turnips.

Eventually, the tone of my algorithm shifted. Between beauty products and video games, TikTok began serving me videos in which young people discussed erratic mood swings, a lack of self-confidence, trouble processing auditory and written information, and something called “burning out,” to name a few. The throughline among them? Each described a set of lesser-known ADHD symptoms.

These attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) videos are part of a larger TikTok community that’s emerged over the last year, in which young people share their experiences with the disorder. Videos detailing habitually overlooked symptoms or jokes making light of the condition garner from hundreds of thousands to millions of views at a time. Other teens and young adults flood comment sections with streams of questions and their own experiences with a disorder they also didn’t consider they could have. For some, this community has been the first space where they feel comfortable discussing how ADHD truly affects them. For others, it’s their first time hearing about ADHD at all, despite the fact that these experiences resonate with them so deeply. TikTok’s algorithm encourages this, ensuring most of the videos you see are ones based on your interests and engagement — the ones that hit close to home.

Until recently, I’d deemed the excruciatingly familiar experiences I saw on my FYP as personal character flaws. I’d always been horrific at concentrating, and my motivation is embarrassingly nonexistent. I often joked about having ADHD without considering it could be true. I knew people with ADHD — they were so active and full of energy, and I was so far from that. But as I saw more of these videos, they became something of a wakeup call, hinting these “character flaws'' weren't just things I should brush under the rug.

I eventually spoke to my doctor about the possibility of having ADHD, mostly to put my mind at ease. In my head, I’d convinced myself I was just being silly, projecting others’ experiences back onto myself, and I was sure my doctor would say the same. To my surprise, my call for help was quickly validated with an assessment. My doctor asked me questions I would never have thought were relevant to ADHD before. Was I a good driver? Did I have a history of disordered eating or self-harm? Did I struggle with talking too much? It was a whirlwind. In a matter of months, I walked away with a diagnosis of severe combined-type ADHD, meaning I had both inattentive and hyperactive characteristics. I had gone from finding some videos eerily relatable to receiving a diagnosis and a newfound understanding of ADHD I didn’t have before. My doctor assured me this was not a unique experience.

When it comes to understanding ADHD and its symptoms, past studies have been hindered by small sample sizes and male-based research, and psychologists are still trying to catch up from this bias. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), girls are three times less likely than boys to receive a diagnosis for ADHD, despite not necessarily being less likely to have the disorder. This inequality may stem from the fact that ADHD symptoms in girls may manifest as less overtly disruptive traits, like being overly talkative, having low self-esteem, or being overly sensitive. The result involves ADHD going unnoticed and undiagnosed in many young women and nonbinary people, leaving them to unknowingly internalize their symptoms without even knowing they need help.

“Women are more likely to internalize their ADHD symptoms due to gender role stereotypes. In today’s society, women are expected to be cooperative, orderly, and possess domestic behaviors, such as taking care of the family or tending to their household chores,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “[Some] women with ADHD believe they will be rejected by society if they display traits that differ from these gender stereotypes, which leads to the internalizing, or masking, of symptoms.”

ADHD TikTok, though, has helped lay the foundation for a new understanding of ADHD. “As a femme-presenting nonbinary person, people perceive me as a girl, which is why I believe my potential ADHD wasn’t noticed at school,” says Red, a 20-year-old freelance filmmaker. “Seeing ADHD TikToks made me realize people were having exactly the same experiences as me.”

These experiences may be even more widespread than you think. According to a report from Blue Cross Blue Shield, ADHD diagnosis rates among Gen Zers have climbed by 31% from 2010 to 2017. Similarly, millennials are currently facing “double digit increases in prevalence for eight of the top 10 health conditions,” which includes ADHD. Hafeez, too, has “noticed an increase” in ADHD diagnoses for Gen Zers and millennials recently. “The stress of the repercussions of the pandemic may trigger ADHD symptoms in Gen Zers and millennials. For example, adolescents and young adults report problems with motivation issues, time management, and concentration with the remote learning experience,” she says. “There is also an increase in ADHD diagnoses in adults, which may be due to the realization that ADHD is not just a disorder that affects children.”

My stomach dropped when I realized I could have gone my whole life with a weight strapped to my back I didn’t even know was there. I was so grateful for the videos I’d seen that let me know what I experienced wasn’t simply a case of me falling short but rather something to kick up a fuss about. When I returned to the ADHD community on TikTok, I saw others stuck in a similar cycle of not knowing if their symptoms weren’t real or if they just didn’t fit the image of ADHD decades of antiquated, gender-biased research have long painted.

TikTok has not only served as a resource for people to discover the more unfamiliar manifestations of ADHD, it’s also aided in further destigmatizing the disorder, becoming a platform where people can go to openly discuss and unload what they often have felt ashamed of. With over 2.3 billion views under the hashtag #ADHD, memes poking fun at typically shunned symptoms — like having a short temper, picky eating, and hyper-fixating on a variety of interests — are ceaselessly going viral, while doctors and experts chime in, addressing misconceptions and misinformation about the disorder. Smart, perceptive, unapologetic people with smartphones are accomplishing what older research didn’t.

Jess, a 27-year-old owner of an art print store who co-founded the ADHD community platform I Am Paying Attention with Charlotte Mia Sperrin on Instagram, is among these content creators. In a video that has reached more than 300,000 views, she details how she was able to receive a speedy diagnosis in the U.K. and how others could do it, too, despite the five-year waiting list for an ADHD assessment. She explains that her platform has allowed her to speak to an abundance of young adults who may have undiagnosed ADHD, and she believes the online community has created a place where she has found strength within herself and others. “There is, in my opinion, a lot of power in knowing you’re not struggling with something alone,” she says. “It’s been a really healing journey for me.”

ADHD TikTok, of course, isn’t perfect. It’s certainly not a diagnostic tool, and there’s a tendency for people to confuse other young creators for medical experts. The short video format also contributes to the oversimplification of symptoms and does little to remind users that simply relating to someone’s experience does not equal a diagnosis. TikTok’s addictive nature has even heightened ADHD symptoms for some individuals, like Jack, a 20-year-old student. “I felt like TikTok reinforced behaviors and habits that distracted me from what I wanted to do,” he says. “It provided a short-term gratification that I kept chasing.”

According to Hafeez, if you have ADHD, what Jack experienced is entirely possible. “When someone is on TikTok and they see something that makes them laugh, their brain receives a little hit of dopamine,” she says. “Children or adults with ADHD are always looking for something that will stimulate them, and they will go to great lengths to avoid boredom. Therefore, people who have ADHD often turn to social media sites as a source of distraction, quick fixes, and instant gratification.” Although too much time on TikTok can exacerbate ADHD symptoms for people who already have the disorder, “this is not to say that TikTok causes ADHD,” says Hafeez.

The benefits of the types of candid online conversations ADHD TikTok promotes are clear. Rather than ignoring, hiding, or playing off symptoms, like I did, many users have come to embrace their experiences. Jack says he felt more comfortable with his ADHD after finding such a flourishing online community. “It makes me feel hopeful that over time I can learn to manage my ADHD and be successful.”

It would be foolish to ignore the negative implications of social media on mental health, particularly for young people. Toxicity, gatekeeping, oversimplification, and misinformation still linger. But the inarguable benefits of connection for any siloed group are too great to overlook. “Many young people who have felt broken and isolated for a very long time,” says Jess, “finally have the opportunity to become part of a community.”