A swarm of advertisements encouraging attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) self-diagnosis and medication have appeared on TikTok in recent weeks, potentially violating the platform’s medical misinformation policy. TikTok seems to be prioritizing profit over the safety of its young user base by allowing companies to promote medication for a broad set of symptoms, such as being “chatty.”
A January NBC report exposed TikTok for allowing Cerebral, a health startup, to sponsor ADHD advertisements that promoted “negative body images and contained misleading health claims.”
According to NBC, the ads linked overeating and obesity to ADHD: “The ad said obesity is ‘five times more prevalent’ among adults with ADHD, and stated that getting treatment for the mental health disorder could help patients ‘stop overeating.’” The person featured in the advertisements was surrounded by junk food.
Although the report states that TikTok has since removed those specific advertisements, a Media Matters review found ads from Cerebral and other companies offering ADHD treatment that were similar to the ads TikTok took down. The ads seem to be capitalizing on the TikTok phenomenon of ADHD self-diagnosis, in which some creators oversimplify the disorder, leading viewers to try to decide themselves whether they have the disorder, sometimes incorrectly. This can push users to inappropriately seek ADHD medication, which can have dangerous side effects if used improperly. Self-diagnosis on TikTok is well-documented and can be dangerous.
Generalizing symptoms of ADHD may constitute medical misinformation, which TikTok prohibits. One advertisement by Cerebral encouraged female users who are “spacey, forgetful, or chatty” to pursue an ADHD diagnosis and medication.
Done, another company NBC noted was advertising ADHD treatment, explicitly encourages users to self-diagnose via a survey. On its website, Done claims that “6 questions are enough to see if Done can help” and has users fill out a one-minute assessment. The assessment doesn’t officially diagnose a user, but tells them if a diagnosis “seems likely.” After the assessment, Done promises to “help you book an appointment with one of our licensed health practitioners” to get an official diagnosis and medication.
Done appears to specifically gear its advertisements toward young users, as they often feature young people discovering that they have ADHD and they use popular TikTok sounds and formats.
In another Done advertisement reviewed by Media Matters, an 18-year-old claimed that anxiety, depression, being behind, and being “lazy” are symptoms of ADHD that can be improved by medication, implying that if you experience any of these generalized symptoms you should use their service or seek medication.
TikTok users are beginning to notice the influx of advertisements attempting to convince users that they have and should be medicated for ADHD. One user wrote in overlaid text “pharmaceutical companies after running tiktok ads to convince children they need to start ADHD meds” with the song Major Bag Alert playing in the background (implying that the companies see this as an opportunity to make a profit).
Another user screen-recorded their feed to show that right after the video calling out the predatory advertisements appeared on their For You Page, they immediately received an advertisement from Cerebral with the text “I think I have ADHD but I’m too nervous to talk to a doctor.”
There are medical risks to incorrectly taking prescribed ADHD medication, including addiction and overdose. TikTok is not only allowing medical companies to misleadingly advertise ADHD treatment plans to young users, but also profiting from it.