Many patients, especially the younger generation, are getting information about their health from social media, even before they bring their concerns to a healthcare provider. So it’s important to be aware of the kinds of messaging they might see online and how it can shape conversations in the clinic.
The numbers don’t lie. Statistics on how social media is shaping patients’ understanding of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show that:
- In the US, there are 62,000 monthly Google searches for “do I have ADHD?” and related search terms
- The global monthly search volume for ADHD-related queries is 148,000
- On Instagram, the hashtag #adhd has over 3.9 million posts
- On TikTok, #adhd is the seventh most popular health-related hashtag on the platform and videos tagged with #adhd have over 4.3 billion views
There are many social media accounts about ADHD on all platforms—created by people with lived experience, healthcare providers, or otherwise.
Discerning what’s true, what’s not, and what’s relevant to a patient gets complicated when there’s so much unmoderated information on social media platforms to sort through. While there are benefits to social media’s portrayal of ADHD—like reducing mental health stigma and improving health literacy—there are also concerns about misinformation. One study on ADHD and social media found that 52% of TikTok videos analyzed were classified as misleading.
In this article, we discuss the connection between social media and ADHD. Read on for an exploration of how portrayals of ADHD shape conversations between patients and healthcare providers and how social media use can interact with significant ADHD symptoms like attention, anxiety, and self esteem.
Why Is ADHD Trending On Social Media Sites?
The prevalence of ADHD is increasing, so naturally, social media sites reflect the growing presence, awareness, and conversation. According to the CDC, nearly 9.8% of US children aged 3–17 have ever been diagnosed with ADHD (using data from 2016–2019).
What Does The Trend Mean For Clinicians?
Clinicians can anticipate that more patients may come into the clinic with preconceived ideas about what it looks like to have ADHD, assumptions about their diagnosis, and expectations about the medication or treatment they will receive.
For example, in a recent interview, Dr. Alexander Welge, Director of Medicine from SohoMD, commented:
“We’re seeing the trend that's happening. A patient says: ‘I think I have ADHD. My friend thinks I have ADHD. I'd like to get tested. I like to see.’ So there’s a big demand. But I think the trend is also happening now because society as a whole is moving very, very fast, and people are having difficulties keeping pace.”
Read the full case study here: Stabilizing Patient Symptoms In Fewer Visits: SohoMD and Creyos Health
To give patients the best experience and outcomes, it’s important to take time to dispel myths, to recommend practices that are beneficial for overall symptom management, and to gather objective data about their cognition to support the formation of an accurate diagnosis.
Social media can also be used to a clinician’s advantage, as a tool to guide conversations with patients about ADHD. Even though there's a lot of misinformation on social media about ADHD, it's also a platform to help patients gain easier access to trusted, validated resources.
How To Find Reliable Social Media Content About ADHD
When looking for resources to support conversations with patients, consider these criteria for evaluating ADHD content on social media apps:
- Is the content written by a healthcare provider or researcher?
- Is the content nuanced rather than generalized?
- Is the content written from a lived experience perspective?
- Is the content informed by science (with cited sources)?
- Does the content encourage more learning, talking to a doctor, or seeking official diagnosis (rather than self diagnosis)?
If you can answer yes to most of these questions, the content is likely helpful to a patient who thinks they might have ADHD.
Portrayals Of ADHD On Social Media
With the abundance of ADHD social media content, there are portrayals that reinforce stereotypes as well as those that aim to dispel stigma and accurately depict the lived experiences of people with ADHD. By understanding the common myths and stereotypes about ADHD, clinicians can respond with more sensitivity and better tailor their language to create positive experiences for patients.
Here are some of the most common ADHD stereotypes portrayed on social media and guidance for how to respond if these come up in conversations with patients.
Do I Have ADHD Or Am I Too Lazy?
There’s a common belief that people with ADHD are not trying very hard, or are simply not motivated to complete a task or achieve a goal. When discussing an ADHD diagnosis with a patient, it can be helpful to convey that a person with ADHD may try really hard to focus or complete a list of tasks, and still struggle to accomplish what they set out to do.
Another version of this concept is that people with ADHD can’t focus or complete tasks that they find boring. It’s true that difficulties with motivation characterize ADHD. The ADHD brain has marked differences in the presence of dopamine and norepinephrine compared to non-ADHD brains, and these neurotransmitters play a role in feelings of motivation and reward.
Finding the right level of mental stimulation is valuable for people with ADHD, but not necessarily a consistent approach for managing symptoms. However, it can be helpful to know that under stimulation and overstimulation can affect ADHD symptoms.
One of the reasons people with ADHD may struggle with social media, such as spending excessive time on social media sites, is because it offers a method of constant stimulation, although one that can lead to negative effects later.
I Just Need More Discipline
People with ADHD can struggle with elements of discipline, like following rules, because of limitations to attention and impulse control. This might be especially obvious in children or young adults who have difficulties following structure at school. Making the situation worse, the availability of electronic devices in school settings (cellphones, tablets, laptops) can encourage problematic social media use and excessive screen time, interrupting learning goals.
There are several non-pharmacological treatments for ADHD that use attention training and discipline as methods for addressing ADHD symptoms. These can be helpful, and they are often explored in combination with medication.
Here are a few examples:
- Behavioral parent training: Trains parents self-regulation skills and methods for managing behavioral ADHD symptoms with their child.
- Mindfulness: Trains an individual to pay attention in the present moment. Mindfulness can help improve sustained attention and reduce stress.
- Neurofeedback: Trains an individual using neurofeedback to condition new patterns of behavior and improve cognitive function. While the risk of negative effects is low, research on its efficacy has shown mixed results and requires more research.
I Don’t Need Treatment, I Can Use Hyperfocus To My Advantage
While inattention and difficulty focusing is one side of the coin of ADHD symptoms, on the other side is hyperactivity, impulsivity, and periods of hyperfocus. Based on portrayals on social media, hyperfocus can be viewed as a helpful state—enabling a person to accomplish a lot of activity in a relatively short period of time, compared to states of inattention.
During hyperfocus, a person may experience time blindness, a bias towards events happening in the short term (even if the task doesn’t benefit them in the long term). When directed towards tasks aligned with overall wellbeing, these periods of time blindness can seem useful. However, hyperfocus can also go awry if it is directed towards activities like excessive digital media use.
Patients seeking relief from significant ADHD symptoms like inattention might express concerns that treatment will also relieve them of periods of hyperfocus. It can be helpful to discuss with patients that treatment can help them achieve consistently in their focus—which can benefit their overall mental health, self esteem, and daily functioning.
Comorbid Disorders Between Social Media Use And ADHD Symptoms
Emerging research shows that there are comorbid psychiatric disorders and mental health issues that are linked to ADHD, and many of them are shared with or amplified by problematic social media use.
In 2019, the World Health Organization published guidelines about children’s screen time after reports that digital media use affected brain health in several key ways, including:
- Reducing working memory capacity
- Increasing psychological problems, from depression to anxiety and sleep disorders
- Influencing text comprehension while reading on screens
These impacts of problematic social media use on brain health are similar to the conditions that patients with ADHD often experience already. The CDC reports that 6 in 10 children with ADHD had at least one of these other behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders:
- About half of the children with ADHD had a behavioral problem
- About 3 in 10 children with ADHD had anxiety
- Many children had other conditions, including: depression, autism spectrum disorder, and Tourette syndrome
With this in mind, clinicians have to navigate conversations with patients around discerning whether they have ADHD, or a separate disorder with similar symptoms, or comorbidities. They also need to make appropriate treatment and lifestyle recommendations, such as limiting screen time and problematic social media use.
This is where objective data can help, in combination with the subjective insights clinicians already gather.
Along with testing a patient for ADHD, clinicians may also want to screen for depression, anxiety, and mood disorders to understand the comorbidities a patient is experiencing along with ADHD symptoms.
Read more: Understanding the ADHD Brain Scan
Addressing Misconceptions About ADHD With Objective Data
Social media can be a starting place for many patients to learn about ADHD and seek diagnosis. But information found readily online, such as online tests for ADHD, are not a replacement for clinical assessment and official diagnosis.
Relying on social media alone can lead a patient to an inaccurate understanding of what they are actually experiencing, especially since many of the symptoms of ADHD are shared with other disorders.
With this in mind, clinicians need to be able to discern and diagnose ADHD accurately. To reach an ADHD diagnosis, clinicians often use a combination of subjective interviews and objective cognitive testing to better understand the causes, comorbidities, and severity of symptoms. Cognitive assessments offer a scientifically-validated way to track symptoms and the efficacy of treatment and medication over time, while empowering both clinician and patient with as much detail as possible about the patient’s condition.
“We needed an objective tool that could help us efficiently lead to the right diagnosis and treatment. With Creyos, we have both objective assessments and subjective screening. When you put that together it can be a really powerful tool to help clinicians navigate, really clarify, and efficiently get to the right diagnosis and ultimately better patient outcomes.”—Dr. Alexander Welge, Director of Medicine, SohoMD
Accurately Diagnosing ADHD In The Age Of Social Media
Across social media platforms, there’s a boom in information about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Access to ADHD social media content is helping to increase awareness, educate, reduce stigma, and spark conversations with healthcare providers. However, caution is also needed: both around avoiding misinformation and limiting problematic social media use.
The ADHD brain is more complicated than can be summarized in a short post that’s designed to be quickly consumed. Healthcare providers will frequently see patients who think they have ADHD based on what they learn on social media, but they will need to explain to these patients that additional expertise and testing tools are needed to arrive at an accurate diagnosis.
Do People With ADHD Struggle With Social Media?
Yes, people with ADHD may struggle with social media because it is designed to encourage continuous scrolling and frequent distractions, i.e. notifications. People with ADHD may also experience time blindness, a bias towards events happening in the near future that makes them prone to distraction and lose track of the long-term.
Short-form content on social media can reinforce that bias towards immediate, short-term focus, even when it’s not in the person’s best interest.
Is There A Rise In ADHD Due To Social Media?
According to recent studies, social media use isn't the primary cause behind ADHD. However, excessive use of social media might increase ADHD symptoms. Social media can be a useful tool for education, but there are no substitutes for an expert diagnosis.