Dr. Google and his friend psychiatrist TikTok
Do you have an appointment with Dr. Google?
“Do you think I might have ADHD?”. I asked my sister, who is a general practitioner, this question 6 months after first downloading TikTok. She asked the reasons behind this questioning, and I had to tell her that I related closely to many TikTok videos that I had been seeing on my ‘For You Page’. For example, I did have trouble staying focused for an extended period of time. She answered that, no I did not have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and I did not have OCD (Obsessive–compulsive disorder) and I did not have BPD (borderline personality disorder) as well. She did say that while you could have some of the traits that were in these mental disorders it did not necessarily mean that you had it. While short attention span is, indeed, a sign of ADHD, it can also be the result of spending time on a phone and getting used to more and more attention-grabbing videos and scrolling.
Self-diagnosis and misdiagnosis have always existed and even more so with Google which could be used to search any kind of symptoms and find a disease that matched most of them. A colloquial term has been invented to describe this act of searching on Google for a pathology, it is called ‘Dr Google’. This highlights the prevalence of individuals that turn to the Internet instead of going directly to a doctor or psychiatrist.
Self-diagnosis on TikTok
Yet, with Google you had to search for those symptoms. An action was needed by the user. This is where TikTok differs from this. On TikTok the algorithm pushes this kind of content onto the user, the action becomes passive, and it seeps through the thought process as they interact with one TikTok. They then see ten more a few minutes later. You interact with content on this app because you relate to it. Self-diagnosis and trying to find a community on TikTok have been amplified with lockdowns as it was harder than before to receive professional medical help.
Of course, some creators are genuinely using their platform to give a sense of community to those who have the same mental disorder as them or, are trying to raise awareness. Sharing their experiences and struggles has opened a wide pathway to discussing mental. Some creators are jumping on these trends and make trendy and relatable content on the topics to increase their views and interactions on their videos. They make simplified content with videos saying things such as ‘3 things I did not know where signs of ADHD’ and one of them will be ‘picking at my nails’. This can lead to minimizing many mental illnesses and disorders. Influencers and companies can also be capitalizing on the attention that mental illnesses awareness is getting to sell products. This is the case with a telehealth startup called Cerebral that sells expensive treatments.
Self-diagnosis on TikTok can also lead to teenagers portraying the mental disorders that they think they have. An increase of young girls displaying Tourette’s like symptoms came to a hospital in Chicago. They did not have Tourette, but they convinced themselves that they might have it. This has been called a ‘horoscope effect’, it is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (Financial Times, 2022)
There are no tangible proofs of this increasing self-diagnosis trend. It is still too early to have research papers and it would be complicated to record as it is a personal matter and hardly quantifiable. However, many professionals are testifying on this matter “A number of mental health providers say that they are seeing an uptick in teenagers and young adults who are diagnosing themselves with mental illnesses — including rare disorders — after learning more about the conditions online.” (The New York Times, 2022). We only have records of the individuals who were seeing or chose to see a psychiatrist or therapist after a self-diagnosis. For many of them, they decide either not to see one or they do not have the resources to do so. Generation-Z is less likely compared to other generations to seek help according to a study done by McKinsey. And when they do seek help Gen-Zers rely mainly on “emergency care, social media, and digital tools” (McKinsey, 2022).
Many fidget products selling companies, such as rings or toys, also targets anyone that has or think they have ADHD. This means that the individuals seeing ADHD awareness content, are also likely to be targeted with an ad for a quick relief of the condition.
Consequences of self-diagnosis
Self-diagnosis can indeed lead to getting a diagnosis done by a professional. This diagnosis can either confirm what the patient thought they had, find the illness or condition, or even just reassure the patient that they do not have anything. This is what happened to 23-year-old Matilda Boseley who discovered that she had ADHD thanks to content on TikTok. ADHD is widely less diagnosed for women than for men and many young girls who have ADHD are trying to bring awareness on this matter on TikTok.
However, a self-diagnosis can be harmful in many ways. First off, most individuals do not have the medical knowledge or expertise to diagnose their symptoms accurately. It can also delay treatment if the individual is convinced that they have made an accurate self-diagnosis, they can delay going to a doctor or a psychiatrist to receive help or treatment. Misdiagnosis can also lead to self-medication and induce a wrong treatment, and this can be harmful. It can also cause a lot of anxiety which could be easily avoided, as they do not have any guidance in the diagnosis. Finally, self-diagnosis can lead to a sort of dependence on unreliable sources such as TikTok where they will find both the diagnosis and the treatment which is most likely to be wrong. For example, borderline personality disorder is extremely rare with only 1.4% of U.S Population that has this disorder. Yet, on TikTok the #bpd has around 8.2 billion views as of January 2023 (TikTok, 2023).
People who self-diagnose themselves should not be shamed as it can sometimes be seen online but rather, it should be used to open discussion about their feelings. There are reasons why they thought they had this illness or mental disorder, and it can lead to going to see a professional to solve any matter that they could have.
Ashekian Health Sciences Researcher & PhD Student, T.L. (2023) The rise of ‘dr. google’: The risks of self-diagnosis and searching symptoms online, The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-rise-of-dr-google-the-risks-of-self-diagnosis-and-searching-symptoms-online-180278 (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Boseley, M. (2021) Tiktok accidentally detected my ADHD. for 23 years everyone missed the warning signs | Matilda Boseley, The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/04/tiktok-accidentally-detected-my-adhd-for-23-years-everyone-missed-the-warning-signs (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Caron, C. (2022) Teens turn to TikTok in search of a mental health diagnosis, The New York Times. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/29/well/mind/tiktok-mental-illness-diagnosis.html (Accessed: January 23, 2023).
Mohamed, Z. (2022) Young women are self-diagnosing personality disorders, thanks to Tiktok, ELLE. Available at: https://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/a39573245/young-women-self-diagnose-personality-disorder-tiktok/ (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Murphy, H. (2022) Self-diagnosis ads on TikTok Blur Mental Health fears with reality, Subscribe to read | Financial Times. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/dd63fb93-fa81-4a29-918e-93fa06fb8c4c (Accessed: January 13, 2023).
Emma Le Vourch