April 4, 2022 - 10:50am

Nearly 16 years before the creation of Tiktok — 10 years before Instagram, 4 years before Facebook — Mark Feldman wrote an essay called ‘Munchausen’s By Internet: Detecting Factitious Illness and Crisis Online.’ Feldman describes how some users misuse ‘virtual support groups’ by feigning, exaggerating or creating medical problems in order to gain attention and sympathy. Some of the most notorious examples include a blogger who faked a cancer diagnosis; a woman who pretended for over a decade to be a widower with an ill son; or the horrific case of Lacey Spears, who tweeted about her son’s illness while secretly poisoning him with salt.

These may seem like anomalous, extreme, unusually tragic examples. Yet over the last few years TikTok has become a hugely successful platform for mental illness and disability appropriation: content creators, playing at being medical experts, pathologise behaviours and self-diagnose disorders, and encourage their users to do the same. 

For example, users like Connor DeWolfe have accrued millions of followers and likes by vlogging about their experiences of ADHD, a hugely popular topic on TikTok (#ADHD videos have over 10.4 billion views). Their experiences may be real, but so is the phenomenon of ‘suggestibility’: people ‘thinking’ things into existence by copying and absorbing behaviours they have been exposed to. 

You only need to look at the comments section on any video highlighting ‘ADHD symptoms’ (no matter how common or generic) to see dozens of users claiming they must have ADHD too. These videos become the equivalent of ‘health horoscopes’: remove enough context, apply the statements to your own life, and the more you read, the more convinced you become. It’s no wonder waiting lists for appointments for ADHD can be as long as two years. Along with everything else too, we now have massive diagnostic inflation.

Suggestibility is a hugely powerful bias. In the Middle Ages, people literally danced themselves to death in ‘psychic epidemics’ of mass hysteria. In 2022, there are now users displaying likely performative ADHD symptoms and huge numbers of young girls with vocal and motor tics that are identical to TikTok videos of individuals with Tourettes. Some experts have deemed it a ‘mass social media-induced illness’, an ‘expression of the stress of society’ while also ‘emphasising the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality.’

Teenagers wanting to be different and unique is hardly a new phenomenon. However, TikTok is sadistically seductive in its romanticisation of suffering — its pro-anorexia ‘thinspiration’ content, its glamorisation of self-harm, its depiction of anxiety and depression as ‘quirky’ personality traits all perpetuate this ‘online cultivation of beautiful sadness.’ 

This is why articles that credit TikTok with helping users to recognise symptoms of disorders are so misleading. TikTok is not therapy. Unqualified, non-professional TikTok creators are not a source of authority on complicated and nuanced medical conditions, and these self-proclaimed ‘mental health advocates’ are simply interested in driving engagement. 

Only a couple of weeks ago TikTok was criticised for advertising ADHD medication (and being in violation of its own misinformation policy), proving once again that eyeballs are more important than ethics. We should therefore not praise TikTok for helping users ‘down the rabbit hole of self-discovery’, but acknowledge the reality: that most users are simply chasing a white rabbit.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.