Advise Me

TikTok and the Dangers of Self-Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders

Many people still think of TikTok as a dance app, but it’s waaaay more than that. Just spend a few minutes scrolling with a Gen-Zer (the main consumers of TikTok) and your mind will be blown.

Now with more than a billion users, TikTok is the go-to app for the latest trends (and fads). Some are good, some are entertaining and funny, but others seem downright questionable, such as the latest trend of people self-diagnosing themselves with mental health conditions.

This trend has many people wondering, “Is this safe or just harmful?”

Uptick in TikTok self-diagnoses among teens and young adults

Many behavioral health experts like Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, have grown greatly concerned in the last year about the rise in teens and young adults who are self-diagnosing with conditions like ADHD, OCD, dissociative identity disorder (DID), autism and Tourette syndrome.

With more time at home and more idle time for social media apps like TikTok, which boasts 2.4 billion views, experts have seen an unusual spike in mental health cases in hospitals and behavioral health facilities across the country. Just this past month, Dr. Adelayo has seen a surge in “physical and verbal tics” among teenage girls.

“We’ve seen an explosion of Tourette-like tics in our unit and every single case has been linked with watching countless TikTok videos about people with Tourette syndrome,” Dr. Adelayo said. “These kids don’t have Tourette’s, but they aren’t pretending either. They have a functional movement disorder as a result of stress and possibly underlying anxiety or depression which may or may not have been properly diagnosed.”

After a series of individualized treatment plans and two weeks off of TikTok, the patients were back to normal—the tics were gone—showing just how powerful and influential these TikTok videos can be.

“The ages of 11 to 17 are particularly susceptible to social influence,” Dr. Adelayo. “These TikTok channels can create a sense of community and inclusiveness for this age group, but they can also be a slippery slope.”

The upside and downside of self-diagnosing

At best, TikTok videos have brought greater awareness of disorders like ADHD, Tourette’s and autism and has fostered a sense of community.

“I will say, Gen-Z is one of the greatest generations when it comes to their mental health,” said Dr. Adelayo. “I love hearing from a child that they are in therapy for their anxiety. Mental health is just as important as physical health. In this way, awareness is good.”

At worst, these videos have brought with them a proliferation of misinformation that has led many to believe they have a condition or disorder when they may not.

As we’ve seen during the pandemic, anyone can pose as whoever they want to on the internet. A PhD posing as a medical doctor. A self-proclaimed health guru posing as a nutritionist. Whatever the case or situation, younger people are quick to believe what they see and hear on the internet without doing much questioning or further research.

“It creates this horoscope type of effect. People see enough of these videos, they start to relate to any number of the potential symptoms and even begin to present with some of the same symptoms,” Dr. Adelayo said. “The thing is psychological illnesses don’t happen that way. Just because you pee a lot, doesn’t mean you have diabetes. You just don’t have diabetes because you say you have diabetes.”

While awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health issues on TikTok can be beneficial, taking advice from these “armchair experts,” those without real medical expertise, can pose problems. Dr. Adelayo said it’s important to remember that if you believe you have a mental health condition, there are professionals who can help.

“While you might believe you have ADHD, it could actually be anxiety or something else,” Dr. Adelayo said. “It’s really important for people to connect with the right scientific information and professionals so they can get the right evidence-based treatments. They don’t have to live with how they’re feeling forever.”

Dr. Adelayo’s tips on TikTok

Not everything you see on TikTok is bad or harmful, but here are some tips for adults and parents to keep in mind:

  • Be careful who you look to, and where you go, for advice. There is a lot of good information online, but not all of it is accurate. Check the credentials of those you take advice from and make sure they have legitimate expertise in the area you are interested in. If you have a question about a condition, utilize sites for reliable information, such as those ending with .gov, .edu or .org. Then follow up with your doctor or a behavioral health specialist about your concerns.
  • Monitor the “For You” page. If you find yourself trapped in a web of content that is making you uncomfortable, start following tags that bring you joy. Or you can reset your “For You” page altogether.
  • Remember, TikTok isn’t therapy. TikTok isn’t therapy because therapy involves individualized care by a licensed professional. You might find validation and a sense of community through TikTok, but if you are really questioning your mental health, talk to a health care professional.
  • Take a TikTok timeout. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of TikTok—an hour later you are still scrolling. Take a digital timeout during the day to allow your brain and body to recharge and refocus. You can also limit your social media usage in the settings of your phone, enabling your phone to restrict use after a certain amount of time.
  • Watch for signs. If your use of TikTok and social media is starting to affect your daily life, it’s time to speak with your health care provider or a behavioral health specialist.

A final word for parents

Let’s face it, Gen-Z is extremely online. In addition to social media apps, they also spend a whopping 9 hours each day in front of a screen. It’s understandable that being engaged with friends and social networks that many hours in a day can take its toll—physically and mentally.

If your child comes to you claiming they have a mental health condition, talk to them about what symptoms they are experiencing and connect them with a professional who can help. In addition, if you notice that your child’s use of social media is starting to affect school, friendships and interest in activities they once enjoyed, connect them with a professional.

“Getting an official diagnosis and ruling out any other issues is the only way to access an effective treatment plan for any disorder,” Dr. Adelayo said.

To find a Banner Behavioral Health specialist, visit bannerhealth.com or call 800-254-4357.

Other helpful articles:

Behavioral Health Children's Health

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