Adult ADHD and TikTok: What experts want you to know

Billions of people are watching videos about ADHD on TikTok, leading many to question whether they have the disorder.

Ben Steel, 37, generally steers clear of social media.

But when his wife watched a TikTok video on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) during one of Melbourne’s lockdowns, it made them both sit up and take notice.

Ben recognised many similarities between some of the stories and himself.

“The big thing was having a bit of a scatterbrain and not having what they call executive brain function – not being able to have the ability to plan, remember a lot of things,” Ben says.

The TikTok hashtag #adhd now boasts more than 2.4 billion views.

While it is credited for raising awareness of the condition, destigmatising it, and helping people like Ben recognise common ADHD characteristics in themselves, health experts worry it may also perpetuate stereotypes and encourage self-diagnosis.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a common developmental disorder charactised by difficulties concentrating, attention and impulse control.

There are three types of ADHD – inattentive, hyperative/impulsive, or combined.

The symptoms of ADHD depend which type a person falls into, but for inattentive signs may include having a short attention span, being unable to stick to tasks that are time-consuming, difficulty listening or following instructions, forgetfulness, being disorganised.

People with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD may often interrupt others, struggle to concentrate, talk excessively, act without thinking.

ADHD affects around one in 20 Australian kids and about 2-3 per cent of adults.

How social media is helping (and hindering) diagnosis

Australian Psychological Society president Tamara Cavenett says Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented mental health crisis.

It’s leading more people to seek professional support, including those who suspect they have ADHD.

“Social media has certainly assisted with the increase in awareness and reduced stigma; however it can also contribute to misinformation and self-diagnosing,” Tamara says.

“So, while we want people to be more aware about their mental health and motivated to improve it, diagnosis must be done through a safe and formal diagnosis with a registered professional.”

Tamara warns without professional diagnosis, people run the risk of prolonged mental ill health.

ADHD Australia director Dr Patrick Concannon recently told the ABC more people are seeking support after watching ADHD-themed videos on TikTok.

I see it as a positive step, because one of the big problems has been the lack of community awareness,” he said.

Dr Concannan said a common stereotype of ADHD was a boy who races around and doesn’t pay attention.

But in reality it affects both sexes, and can lead to troubles in adulthood, in areas such as work, relationships, finances and self-esteem.

Diagnosis of ADHD

Ben says when he was growing up a few people suggested he might have the disorder.

“But I was uneducated about it all,” he says.

“I thought maybe you’d just grow out of it, or ‘I’m too old for it now, what’s the point – I’ve got this far’.”

Ben says looking back there were many signs he had ADHD.

For example he had a shorter attention span than his son, then aged three.

And his job in PR was difficult because he was “essentially going with half my brain”.

Ben was eventually diagnosed by a psychiatrist specialising in adult ADHD.

ADHD in adults have the same symtoms as what is common for kids, but may present as poor time management and always being late, problems focusing on tasks, trouble multi-tasking, relationship difficulties.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and it often goes undiagnosed.

Tamara says some people may feel like they have ADHD because of smartphones and social media clamouring for our attention.

But it’s important to get a professional opinion as the disorder is much more complex than just about attention, she says.

“If you feel like you can’t sit still, can’t complete tasks, have severe procrastination, or swing from being very organised to very overwhelmed then speak with your GP about getting a referral to a psychologist,” Tamara says.

Living with ADHD

For Ben, his diagnosis – and medication he now takes daily – has made life considerably easier.

He has been promoted at work, and improved his relationships with his family because he can listen better and retain information.

“They say it (ADHD) is like going through life with one hand tied between your back – it’s like a level playing field now.”

Written by Larissa Ham.