A new study published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry has uncovered a high prevalence of misinformation about ADHD in TikTok videos. The scientists behind the research warn that the misleading information could potentially result in an increased risk for overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis.
“In the past 2 years (in particular since the start of the pandemic), many doctors are noticing an increase in patients showing up to their offices wondering if they have ADHD,” said study author Anthony Yeung (@AnthonyYeungMD), a geriatric psychiatrist and sleep disorder medicine fellow at the University of British Columbia.
“We think TikTok has been at least partly responsible for this increased awareness of ADHD. The hashtag #adhd is the seventh most popular health hashtag on the platform, and there is a large ADHD community on the platform as well.”
“This increased awareness about ADHD is a double-edged sword,” Yeung explained. “Just as stigma and myths about mental disorders can be busted, there can also be rapid spread of misinformation about mental health disorders even by well-meaning video creators.”
“We have to understand that first and foremost, most of these videos have not been vetted or reviewed by mental health professionals. Thus, as researchers and doctors, we really wanted to understand how users are learning about ADHD on TikTok, and how much misinformation was out there about ADHD.”
For their study, the researchers collected the top 100 results for the hashtag “#adhd” on July 18, 2021. The videos were then independently rated by one psychiatrist and one psychiatry resident with clinical experience in the diagnosis and management of ADHD.
Twenty-one videos were determined to contain scientifically correct information about any aspect of ADHD, 27 videos described a user’s own personal experience with ADHD, and 52 videos included misleading information that lacked scientific evidence.
“The main takeaway is simple: in our analysis, the majority (52%) of videos about ADHD on TikTok are misleading (i.e. – contain misinformation). This has important implications, as on average, each video in our study was viewed almost 3 million times. There were over 4.3 billion views for the #adhd hashtag at the time of our analysis,” Yeung told PsyPost.
“Most of these misleading videos oversimplified ADHD, recommended incorrect treatments, or wrongly attributed symptoms of other psychiatric disorders as being a symptom ADHD. Other videos took common, everyday experiences and incorrectly said that these were symptoms of ADHD. For example, poor focus or concentration can be a normal experience due to inadequate sleep, or also due to medical, psychological, or social and relationship stressors. We found that some misleading videos did not mention these important considerations and lacked nuance.”
“One positive finding from our study was that if the video was uploaded by a health care professional, the video was significantly more likely to be of higher quality, more useful, and less likely to contain misinformation,” Yeung noted. But only 11% of videos were uploaded by health care professionals.
The findings are similar to another study that examined YouTube videos about ADHD. That study found that 38% of videos were misleading.
But the new study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“TikTok’s search algorithm is proprietary and we cannot see every video that was ever published on the platform,” Yeung explained. “For example, we do not know if there is a similar prevalence of misinformation for less popular videos. Most importantly, the TikTok app does not allow us to search for paid video advertisements about ADHD.”
“There has recently been serious concerns raised in the media about predatory advertisements about ADHD on TikTok, made by for-profit telehealth companies. Some of these advertisements were pulled from TikTok, and we do not have access or a way to search for these videos.”
At least two other studies have found a high prevalence of misinformation about health conditions in TikTok videos. “We need to understand on a deeper level why TikTok users connect and resonate so strongly with misleading videos,” Yeung said. “There are larger societal and cultural factors that may explain this.”
Future research is also needed to better understand the prevalence misinformation on TikTok for other mental health topics, the researchers said.
“There are also bigger questions about how the huge volume of unmoderated mental health information on TikTok may result in the general public’s misunderstanding of psychiatric disorders and mental health in general,” Yeung remarked. “For example, TikTok videos about self-harm and suicide have not yet been investigated by researchers.”
“Social media and health misinformation is an area that requires urgent investigation,” Yeung emphasized. “We need to understand how not just TikTok, but also other social media platforms might rapidly propagate misinformation, and the implications it may have on public health and healthcare. In another related example, researchers last year have also noticed a recent spike in tic-like behaviors during the pandemic that was associated with the use of TikTok. This shows that there is a considerable role in the social propagation of mental health symptoms as well, a phenomenon requires more research.”
The study, “TikTok and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Cross-Sectional Study of Social Media Content Quality“, was authored by Anthony Yeung, Enoch Ng, and Elia Abi-Jaoude.