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Who needs a psychologist when you have TikTok?

There has been an emerging trend among adolescents to self-diagnose any number of psychological conditions, largely based on information and content they consume online – particularly through TikTok and similar platforms. Often, teens find reassurance in watching other teens describe their psychological symptomology and much of the content they consume has them walking away from their screens saying, “hey, that sounds just like me!” The sense of validation and community and connection is strong and quite powerful.

But are these self-diagnoses in any way accurate or helpful? Can they actually be harmful?

Adolescence is a time of identity exploration – we try on many different personas in an attempt to explore who we are. We all remember our own explorations in our teen years (often with a sense of slight embarrassment). Such exploration is very healthy and should be encouraged. However, in their explorations, sometimes teens find themselves following paths that may resonate with them, but are not really reflective of who they are.

For instance, it is common for teens to experience challenges with organization, planning, and impulse control. These are highly common experiences and are typical of the adolescent experience – just ask any junior high school teacher! However, there is a significant difference between these sorts of typical challenges and a diagnosis of, for instance, Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

Yet on TikTok, there are any number of influencers who make claims to having ADHD and as a result, the adolescent consumer feels a kinship with these influencers and their descriptions of their symptoms (which are often presented in a highly dramatic or humorous manner). They eventually start to think that they themselves have ADHD, and feel that anyone who questions their self-diagnosis is minimizing their own experience or is discounting their identity.

As such, as adults we need to be very empathetic in our approach to adolescents who self-diagnose. We need to listen actively, reflect on what they are saying to us, and empathize with their experiences; however, we need to remain consistent that TikTok and other similar platforms do not follow the scientific and rigorous methodology that is required to make a diagnosis.

We also need to be careful of our own language. We don’t help matters (and, in fact, we devalue the experiences of others who do have diagnosed conditions) when we say, “I’m having an ADHD moment” when we forget where we left our phone or say “I’m so OCD!” because we like to have our fridge organized.

Adolescents, in their search for identity, seek out what it is about them that is unique and special. Unfortunately, many adolescents feel that having a self-diagnosed psychological disorder is sufficient to meet that need. It is preferable to encourage them toward healthier sources of possible identity development – artistic, athletic, academic, social, creative, musical, and so on.

Another challenge associated with self-diagnosis through TikTok and other platforms is that, for the most part, they focus on short, intense content (in the case of TikTok, perhaps 15 seconds). In that time, it is easy to show the individual symptoms of almost any psychological disorder with ease; a random tic or noise that would be consistent with Tourette’s Disorder; a quick statement on how ADHD can make one feel hyperactive or inattentive; using words such as “depersonalization” as associated with extraordinarily complex disorders such as Dissociative Identity Disorder. These are easy to digest and even mimic, which can actually complicate accurate diagnoses, even by seasoned professionals.

Parents and educators should be encouraged to look for and encourage adolescents to consider the following when determining if further action in relation to a more rigorous diagnosis may be worth considering:

  • Frequency. Does the behavior/symptom occur on a recurrent and ongoing basis, or is more temporary and transitory (changes over time – sometimes the symptoms are there, sometimes not)?
  • Duration. Have the symptoms persisted over time? Do they last for long periods of time? (It is advisable to keep in mind the onset of symptoms – if the adolescent had been without symptoms and then suddenly starts to exhibit them, why the sudden onset?)
  • Intensity. How intense are the symptoms and is the adolescent actively bothered by them? Do the symptoms cause distress?

We should also focus on the social/emotional/academic impairments to functioning. Do the symptoms prevent the adolescent from attending school, engaging in social activities, result in lower or changes in grades, cause problems with sleep/appetite, and so on?

Finally, we do need to acknowledge that diagnosis has historically largely been the domain of white, educated, middle-class men, so there is some validity to comments that many social media users make in relation to diagnoses being an ableist, racist, sexist, classist approach. Good psychologists try to remain aware of our implicit biases and privileges. Fortunately, most psychologists also have exceptional training in diagnostic processes and understand the complexity of making (or not making) diagnosis.

The correct and scientific identification of individual psychological conditions is an ongoing process, but we in no way wish to diminish the experience of those experiences that any adolescent brings forward. Our hope is to meet them where they are and provide guidance and support to help them best navigate this highly complex world.

Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (complexlearners.com), which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.

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