If you’re reading this, it means you haven’t muted “ADHD” from your feeds yet. For that, I’m grateful. At the same time, I kinda get why you might have.
Over the past year or so, ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) seems to have exploded on social media, particularly on TikTok and Twitter. Simultaneously (almost inevitably), the growing interest sparked increasingly contentious online discourse about it. Even for folks with ADHD like myself — who actively contribute to this ongoing cacophony of interminable posts about having, struggling with, strategizing around, joking about, vocally debating over, or just expressing annoyance at the oversaturation of ADHD content — it’s all reached something of a boiling point.
“It can be therapeutic, knowing you’re not the only one existing in this hot mess of a space as an adult,” said Arielle Crawley (Sweetcyanide_ on TikTok), a registered nurse from Philadelphia who got her ADHD diagnosis three years ago at 27-years-old.
But there are issues inherent to any mental health condition becoming #trendy. ADHD’s sudden popularity online begets misinformation, sometimes trivializing this deeply misunderstood neurological condition. At the same time, the added awareness has proven crucial during a period when more people are getting diagnosed and seeking community and education while in isolation.
“I’m glad we’re all relating. But also, like, please leave me alone.”
While procrastinating on a big paper for nursing school recently, Crawley shot off a satirical How To ADHD Like a Pro video listing all her hyper-specific daily struggles. It blew up overnight, and now has over 180,000 views and countless comments relating to even her most obscure ADHD confessions. Her follower count has since ballooned to 11,000 in about six weeks.
“It was nice at first because I don’t really have anybody within close proximity to me that are adults with ADHD. I felt like, ‘Oh, I found my people. I found my tribe.'”
But then Crawley’s For You Page became overrun with ADHD TikTok. While many posts were eye-opening and validating, even she grew weary.
“There’s a lot of negative emotion attached to having ADHD, finding out you have it, especially for those of us diagnosed late in life. So when it’s being shoved down your throat like that, with all of the ‘relatable content’ — I’m just finding more and more ways that my ADHD has invaded every area of my life. So it’s depressing sometimes,” she said. “I’m glad we’re all relating. But also, like, please leave me alone.”
A parallel pandemic
The numbers back up this overwhelming feeling, too.
On TikTok alone, the #ADHD hashtag currently rakes in 3.4 billion views. Meanwhile, Google trends shows searches for ADHD steadily climbing since January 2020, and dipping slightly since a February 2021 peak.
This digital spotlight (and even its subsequent backlash) reveals a lot about ADHD. For decades, even before its online popularity grew, the realities of living with this neurological condition were misrepresented in the medical community and popular culture. But an increasing diversity of people sharing their ADHD experiences on social media is having a major impact on public understanding.
“There’s always been a need for people who didn’t fit those ‘traditional’ ADHD stereotypes to be seen, find their voices, their community,” said Catie Osborn, an ADHD mental health advocate with a theater background known as Catieosaurus to her nearly half a million TikTok followers.
Marginalized people are often chronically under-diagnosed with ADHD because they don’t fit the clichés of white schoolboys bouncing off the walls. The symptoms most common in people assigned female at birth get overlooked because they tend to be more internalized, like inattention rather than disruptive hyperactivity. Meanwhile, people of color may also face under treatment, medical biases, and even more stigmatization.
“ADHD is not rare in [women, girls, and communities of color]. It’s alive and well and being mistaken for a lack of intelligence, road rage, attention-getting (or avoiding) behaviors,” said Kimberly Kizit, who runs the for parents with neurodivergent children and is known as to her nearly 100,000 TikTok followers. Social media visibility allows us to “see there are other voices in these situations that deserve a platform to share their lived experiences.”
Aside from sharing under-discussed struggles, people on social media are also exchanging solutions and tips for managing their ADHD, from special planners specifically designed for the neurodivergent to brain hacks. For ADHD brains that crave dopamine and struggle with attention regulation, the bite-sized, entertaining dopamine hits of social media content can also make all that information more digestible compared to when it’s, say, in books or articles (🙁).
In addition to a growing awareness over time, the pandemic helped drive ADHD content into our feeds.
“The pandemic happened. And all the systems and structures and coping mechanisms people [with untreated ADHD] had built their lives around were taken away.”
“The pandemic happened. And all the systems and structures and coping mechanisms people [with untreated ADHD] had built their lives around were taken away,” said Osborn. “It led to a lot of introspection and really opened up the conversation to the challenges of living with ADHD.”
Everything from higher levels of anxiety, depression, stress, uncertainty, distraction, time warping, boredom, to lack of structure and novelty made the pandemic a unique kind of hell for people with ADHD. Several medical institutions and advocacy groups reported spikes in 2020 of folks seeking treatment for symptoms common in ADHD. The nonprofit CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) saw a 62 percent rise in hotline calls from parents and a 77 percent jump in website traffic since 2019, according to NBC. Meanwhile, 26 percent of trusted online resource ADDitude Magazine’s surveyed readers said they received their official diagnosis during the pandemic, prompted not only by COVID but social media.
In particular, undiagnosed women became a driving force behind ADHD’s prevalence on TikTok, Osborn said. Her highest performing content often covers difficulties typical for people assigned female at birth, like Rejection Sensitivite Dysphoria or the impacts of estrogen and menstrual cycles on ADHD.
The top Google trend searches related to ADHD since January 2020 centered on women and girls, rising by up to 550 percent this month. On TikTok, #ADHDinwomen is currently garnering 226.4 million views. #ADHDmom has 21.2 million (a mixture of moms with ADHD, those whose children have ADHD, or both) views, #ADHDwomen sits at 11.1 million views, and #ADHDgirl clocks in at 5.2 million views.
Osborn hypothesized this may be because women and other commonly under-diagnosed groups often have to become masters at masking their ADHD through a house of cards of coping strategies. Frequently, they only get diagnosed later in life after a drastic change to lifestyle or environment (like having kids, going to college, getting a promotion, working and schooling from home during the pandemic) breaks down those structures.
“There was no way to fake, no way to force it anymore. There was nothing left but to sort of figure out a new way of coping,” Osborn said. At the same time that the mental health of those with untreated ADHD hit rock bottom because of COVID, “everyone started coming to TikTok in a big way because of the pandemic isolation too.”
Kizit similarly described the pandemic as an outlet for all the ADHD aspects of ourselves we learned to mask for fear of being stigmatized as lazy, careless, angry, or too talkative. When people saw others sharing ADHD content, they “got super excited like, ‘Oh my god, that’s me, there’s a name to what I do, have, think!'”
Social media is providing people with ADHD what they’ve been robbed of for too long. Meanwhile others might just be interested in getting educated about a complex disorder that impacts a loved one.
“People who are struggling to understand their partner, friends, or children, or whatever are finding their way into these social media conversations in a way that is really helpful for the people in their lives who need that support system,” she said. “Whether or not you’re neurodivergent, just watching a couple videos about the experience of people who live with ADHD makes you a better teacher, parent, employer, partner.”
So it’s hard to get too mad about this newfound, unprecedented wealth of online communities, reassurances, and resources. At the same time, too much of a good thing — particularly online, particularly with ADHD, particularly during a year when online was people’s sole source of human interaction — can get, well…annoying.
“People with ADHD often have a lot to say, and they saw the success of other ADHD TikTok creators, and they’re like, well, I want to contribute my voice to the conversation, I want to be part of that, which is awesome,” Osborn said. “But we all kind of started talking at the same time. And so the room got really, really crowded, and really, really loud.”
Our collective (yet individual) ADHD hellbrains
On the whole, ADHD is a condition with a unique relationship to the digital age.
Counter to a popular misconception, technology does not “cause” ADHD (though social media can worsen symptoms in some) nor is everyone with ADHD extremely online. But research from studies that tracked the language and behavior of Twitter users with self-reported ADHD could help unpack why the disorder might’ve been so primed for TikTok success — and backlash.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that, in comparison with others, ADHD users tend to be, “less agreeable, more open, to post more often [especially late at night between 12 a.m. to 6 a.m.], and to use more negations, hedging, and swear words.” Also, there were, “significant differences in descriptions of self-efficacy, emotional dysregulation, negation, self-criticism, substance use, and expressions of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.”
I deleted a tweet from yesterday about adhd being “trendy,” and I’d like to apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings. I understand if you don’t have the finances to be formally diagnosed, that’s not what I was saying. As someone with adhd I hate the “I’m so ADD rn,” “squirrel!,” 1)
— sarah schauer 🦂 (@sarahschauer) April 30, 2021
No wonder we’re experiencing digital cacophony around ADHD. The evidence suggests people with ADHD tweet more, and post more emotional, contrarian, and anxious content, and more people are getting a diagnosis or suspecting they have it—on top of the pandemic heightening symptoms overall.
It may sound exhausting to be bombarded by all that on your timeline. But it’s even more exhausting for folks living inside those ADHD brains 24/7 desperately turning to social media as an outlet.
A 2020 study on ADHD Twitter users from the University of Wolverhampton in the UK even put “ADHD hellbrain,” a common social media refrain, in its title. That’s because a lot of the tweeters sampled would use that phrase to distance themselves from the negatively perceived behaviors caused by their ADHD (like, I didn’t forget your birthday — it was my ADHD hellbrain). Other common themes included complex explanations of their disorders, advice and coping strategies, and the need for understanding and support. Positivity about their ADHD was the least common sentiment.
The researchers said this all aligned with previous studies on how people with ADHD often feel compelled to discuss their condition. Among the many potential reasons for why is a deep-seated need to not only make sense of their own (often self-loathed) disordered behaviors, but to be more understood by the family, friends, and society at large still blaming them for those ADHD symptoms.
I myself could not stop posting about my total inability to do work, answer emails, or function at all in early 2021, just as others with ADHD in my timeline crashed into yet another pandemic wall. My tweets were as much a plea for understanding as they were a desperate attempt to alleviate my guilt and self-hatred.
y’all are like “ADHD anxious depressed people ALWAYS get hungry around lunchtime”
— bobby wasabi (@bIondiewasabi) April 14, 2021
At the same time, an increasing number of people have been blaming just about everything on ADHD, whether or not there’s any empirical evidence. Osborn can’t even post about liking dogs anymore without commenters asking if it’s an ADHD thing.
ADHD makes for pretty universally relatable content, especially in 2020. The symptoms commonly overlap with many other mental health conditions and are also occasionally experienced by people who don’t have the chronic, lifelong neurological condition. That’s great if your goal is to get lots of views, but a double-edged sword in the battle to legitimatize and destigmatize ADHD.
“People can have a kind of tunnel vision when they think about ADHD,” said Crawley, the nurse. It can be genuinely hard to know the line sometimes, when its impacts are so far-reaching and still medically ill-defined. “I’ve had moments where I wonder—is my whole personality my ADHD or another mental disorder? Like I don’t know who I am anymore. I have no clue.”
Do I have a personality or am I just a walking bag of adhd symptoms
— STREAM SOME KIND OF HEAVEN ON HULU (@TaylorLorenz) March 22, 2021
That might contribute to the part of the backlash that originates from myths about ADHD not being real, or just an excuse for laziness or “bad” behavior. Osborn unfortunately knows that too well, dealing with a constant barrage of rape and death threats packaged alongside those exact sentiments.
There’s also genuine concern from people with ADHD. Social media can spread mental health misinformation, promote over-generalizing stereotypes, like glamorized versions of a debilitating disorder, and contribute to a dangerous amount of self-diagnosis that can all trivialize actual struggles.
“I hate that it can oversimplify the disorder, because those of us who have it know that it’s not that simple at all,” said Crawley.
The overgeneralizing, even by people with ADHD, can erase nuances, like how people, especially the marginalized, may face their own unique stigmas. Crawley feels apprehensive when posting about any of her experiences involving racism since that kind of commentary elicits negative feedback from her predominantly white audience. Another creator, bjorkswh0re, pointed to how white neurodivergent people on social media can sometimes play “oppression olympics” whenever race comes up.
“Women of color don’t get as much grace as other people do. There are added challenges that come along with ADHD for us. And people tend to get very offended when they feel you’re relatable, then you talk about what they can’t relate to,” said Crawley. “Everyone loves the content — until I say something about being a woman of color.”
ADHD TikTokers are overwhelmingly white, with videos on how the condition intersects with race getting significantly fewer views. The overwhelming whiteness of the TikTok community is also drastically different than the Facebook group Crawley was part of for women of color with ADHD.
“I don’t know how the algorithm works, or why women of color aren’t reaching me or I’m not reaching them. But there is some sort of huge wall there,” she said. “Because I know they exist.”
That lack of representation on social media perpetuates real-world issues, too.
People are mad now but I said what I said. ADHD traits have a lot of overlap with other mental/neurological disorders. Keep in mind the extent to which this shit is actually impacting your everyday life (not just school or work productivity either) and for how long.
— Ashley Reese (@offbeatorbit) February 5, 2021
In her work, Kizit comes across a lot of parents who don’t want to accept the ADHD label because it’s stigmatized in communities of color. ADHD TikTok’s failure to normalize and bring more visibility to people of color’s perspectives or racialized experiences of ableism can contribute to those fears.
“The troubling part about Black and brown kids and girls who aren’t in the ADHD spotlight is that there are missed opportunities for early treatment and therapies that can really help as they get older,” said Kizit.
The bottomless ADHD K-Hole
It’s likely you’re seeing more ADHD content on TikTok because (at least at some point) it captivated you too — the For You Page is driven by engagement, after all.
Maybe, like me, you hyperfixated on consuming every piece of goddamn ADHD content you could for months while struggling through the pandemic, your algorithms bringing your timelines further down that rabbit hole, feeding a vicious cycle from lack of impulse control, as you just kept posting more and more typo-riddled ADHD tweets that always exceeded the character limit but guaranteed you more likes compared to any non-ADHD content, sustaining your dopamine-deprived brain languishing in quarantine.
“I think it will find an equilibrium.”
Then all of a sudden your interest-based nervous system got bored. ADHD content stopped being exciting or new, your eagerness souring into annoyance, your poor self-esteem about your symptoms turning into anger at being confronted with them every time you opened the damn apps. You personally moved on, so now everyone else needs to shut the fuck up about it.
Then you get served TikTok after TikTok about people with ADHD and autism, and start finding those symptoms really relatable too. Despite yourself, you’re sucked right back in all over again.
“I think it will find an equilibrium,” said Osborn. “The pendulum has gone from mental health being a lie and everybody burying their feelings deep down inside to this sort of Gen Z polar opposite where we all talk about our feelings all the time.”
I think people need to get better at distinguishing between growing visibility of ADHD in their online circles and it becoming “trendy”. Nobody irl I know even understands ADHD. People look at me with pity when I tell them. It’s not “cool”.
— adhd-angsty (@AdhdAngsty) April 30, 2021
Yet, when the hashtags inevitably shift their fleeting focus, as they always do, those of us with ADHD will still remain in the cavernous depths of this inexplicably complex disorder.
To admit it’s all gotten to be a bit much is not to diminish, devalue, or disregard its importance. It’s an honest reaction to unending discourse about a condition that can already make us prone to flashes of anger, even towards things we love, appreciate, and need. So much of emotional dysregulation for me at least manifests in strong, often contradictory reactions — especially toward things that matter a whole lot to me.
“I think people probably get sick of me, and that is OK,” said Osborn. “Because this community is such a profound gift. And so I would rather annoy a few people and have a few 100,000 people understand more about themselves, feel better about themselves, not feel so alone. I’d rather that than let, you know, some angry people on Twitter dictate the conversation.”