Social Media Misdiagnosis
Written by: Vanessa Buonopane, Psy.D.
TikTok. Instagram. YouTube. What do all of these social media platforms have in common? They are wonderful for getting mass amounts of information out to people. One type of information provided is information related to mental health. Although this is a great way to educate people on mental health disorders, it can also lead to self-diagnosis and, often, misdiagnosis.
Many teens and young adults are using social media to search for videos about mental health diagnoses, typically relating to some of the symptoms or stereotypical experiences of the content creator. This, ultimately, leads people to identify with the content creator’s diagnosis. One parent stated, “if [her daughter] sees a hint of herself in someone, she thinks she has it, too.”
So, what’s the problem?
While mental health clinicians want people to learn about their diagnoses and connect with others who share similar experiences, we also want you to take in accurate information about mental health diagnoses. One study examined the reach and accuracy of information on autism on TikTok, finding that “videos associated with the #Autism hashtag accrued 11.5 billion views collectively. An examination of the top 133 videos providing informational content on autism…showed that 27% of the videos were classified as accurate, while 41% were classified as inaccurate and 32% as overgeneralized. Videos created by healthcare professionals were more likely to include accurate information” (Aragon-Guevara, Castle, Sheridan, and Vivanti, 2023).
For instance, numerous individuals come into our office for psychological evaluations to determine if they have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) after stating they are having problems with attention and concentration in school, at work, at home, and/or in public settings. While there is a portion of people who legitimately meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, many individuals’ difficulties with attention and concentration might be linked to other concerns, such as depression and anxiety (Note: Check out this article for more information on ADHD).
If you or someone you know believes that they identify with a diagnosis on social media but are not formally diagnosed, it can be helpful to encourage the individual to undergo a psychological evaluation to determine if they meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis. It is important to note that not all symptoms are clinical, meaning we all experience normal ups and downs in life that do not constitute a mental health diagnosis. You can have normal anxiety when giving a presentation and not be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. Similarly, you can have a bad day and not meet the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. When it comes to diagnosing, individuals must meet a certain number of the clinical criteria and, in some cases, those symptoms must be present for specific time periods. They must also cause significant distress in a variety of areas, such as at home, work/school, and in social settings.
Ultimately, social media is not all bad, as it has provided platforms for discussing mental health and has made great strides for “visibility, reducing stigma, and helping people gain the insight they may have no other way to access.” For some people, social media has helped them feel less alone. When attempting to understand yourself or your child, the best thing to do is seek professional help and do your research on more than social media (e.g., research articles, academic/educational websites, and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health).
Aragon-Guevara, D., Castle, G., Sheridan, E. et al. The Reach and Accuracy of Information on Autism on TikTok. J Autism Dev Disord (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-023-06084-6