No, TikTok is not your doctor

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Columnist

In the year since lockdowns began, you may have noticed increased dialogue around ADHD; an ostensibly unprecedented volume of people are discussing the disability, wondering if they may have it and even self-diagnosing.

I can easily see how, had I entered the pandemic without an existing diagnosis, the conditions of lockdown might have led me to seek one. The loss of external structure and routine, complete migration of school and work to digital spaces and under-stimulation have made the past year a veritable ADHD nightmare. Symptoms that might have been easy to mask or harder to detect in the normal flow of life have been exacerbated and magnified by the conditions of COVID-19. 

Additionally, women and BIPOC are historically underdiagnosed with ADHD and many are receiving diagnoses now. This is not an admonition for researching one’s own ADHD symptoms or pursuing a diagnosis if it feels right — diagnoses can alleviate shame around one’s perceived inadequacy and open doors to treatment. Rather, I want to shed light on the possible drawbacks of the near-ubiquity of ADHD in contemporary conversation.

I have ADHD. It’s something you might deduce soon after meeting me. Zoom classmates have noted my tendency to stare intensely into space; professors have lamented my difficulty adhering to deadlines; friends have observed my ability to fixate on a single thing for hours on end. 

For better or for worse (and in the ADHD hellscape of COVID-19, it often feels like the latter), ADHD informs every part of who I am. Admittedly, this can make the influx of self-diagnoses frustrating to witness, especially when many adolescents’ main research points are bite-sized bits of watered-down content from social media.

Much like other complicated, multifaceted topics, information and discussion around ADHD have been largely relegated to the fundamentally limited niche of social media, especially among teens and young adults. The constraints of these short-form platforms (280 characters per tweet; a minute per TikTok video) don’t allow much room for nuance or elaboration, which hinders the productivity of discussion around anything as variegated and complex as neurodivergence. It seems like each video or Twitter thread presenting oversimplified diagnostic criteria should come with a disclaimer:

DO YOU HAVE TROUBLE PAYING ATTENTION? (DISCLAIMER: not only does the digital industry rely on destroying our attention spans, but the pandemic has effectively warped them beyond recognition).

DO YOU OFTEN FIND YOURSELF OVER- OR UNDER-STIMULATED? (DISCLAIMER: we are simultaneously existing under conditions that have removed most varied external stimulation and are in an age of unprecedented internet access).

DO YOU EXPERIENCE FULL-BODY CHILLS EVEN WHEN IT’S NOT COLD? (DISCLAIMER: you are a human experiencing normal bodily reactions).

I do have ADHD, but these “symptoms” seem vague and widely relatable enough to provoke inquiry in nearly everyone. Couple this with the fact that we’ve been staring unremittingly at screens for the past fourteen months, and it becomes clear that we must reexamine the ways we discuss and perceive ADHD and neurodivergence. 

Our culture seeks to pathologize and categorize — every quirk or deviation from the ever-elusive “norm” can fit neatly into a diagnosable, treatable box. We want a reason for everything, and after constant screen time noticeably affecting our attention, and over a year of pandemic fatigue replicating the symptoms of executive dysfunction, ADHD presents itself as a beacon. 

Overgeneralizing and blindly applying symptoms won’t fix anything; rather, it will only harm people with ADHD, who already struggle to be taken seriously when discussing their symptoms. 

Maybe the boundaries of neurodivergence aren’t as clear-cut as we paint them to be. Maybe after an unmotivated, static, low-functioning year, we all want something to turn to. Maybe teens on TikTok just want some viral videos. Regardless, our cultural conceptions of ADHD need to massively shift, because the next time somebody says that the song stuck in their head all day must be a marker of their ADHD, I cannot be held liable for what I do next.