by Kristina Murkett
Monday, 4
April 2022
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10:50

How TikTok glamourises mental health disorders

Self-proclaimed ‘mental health advocates’ have become dangerously influential
by Kristina Murkett

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.

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Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 months ago

Avoiding the big one: encouraging young, moldable people to think they are trans

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Yes, that ‘big one’ occurred to me, too, as I read this. The pathologising, and medicalising, of ordinary behaviour traits (eg restlessness) or transitory mental states (eg teenage sexual uncertainties) is a damaging and dangerous modern phenomenon. The danger is amplified by the modern desire for victim status and the compassion of others. (See Mary Harrington’s article in today’s UnHerd.)

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Yes…. Trans is so ‘trendy’.

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
2 months ago

And so desperately damaging particularly to young women many of whom I suspect may be doing it to escape predatory teenage boys as sexual harassment is now endemic in secondary schools in the U.K.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 months ago

It used to be Tumblr that housed the internet’s real crazy, it seems to have migrated to TikTok – where the damage can be spread even more widely.

Louis Van Steene
Louis Van Steene
2 months ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Agreed. Tumblr was fine since it was relatively self-contained – if you wanted to get out of the bubble you could. Not only is TikTok incredibly effective at mass dissemination, it is also ubiquitous and almost unavoidable even if you don’t download the app yourself (at least amongst young people). The purchasing of Tumblr by Yahoo and the subsequent mass exodus of users after they raptured the essence of the platform is one of the worst things that could have happened to the internet. TikTok blends lawlessness with ubiquity, and effortlessly channels the internet at its worst into the brains of children.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 months ago

This is a growing issue and it reaches beyond social media and into primary schools. While ‘informing’ very young children about the existence of sickness of the mind, alongside sickness of the body and the chirpy ways it can be coped with, educators are suggesting to children that they can be depressed, have low mood, and worry about things. I find it slightly sinister but maybe that’s because bare knuckle fighting was a coping strategy when I was at primary school.

Michael K
Michael K
2 months ago

ADHD is one of the worst diagnoses ever. It’s completely made up. I’m not saying ADHD is made up, I’m saying the diagnosis criteria are.
If you were so inclined, you could find ADHD in anybody who becomes restless at times, forgets things and has trouble concentrating. Think back when you were children: was this not true for at least a few years of your life? Now imagine how it would be if you were to live in today’s even faster world. Lights and sounds everywhere, your cellphone constantly distracting you with small dopamine hits, and your parents being unresponsive due to staring into a screen 24/7.
What’s next? Easy – just give the children ritalin! Prescibe an amphetamine, known on the streets as speed, only one magnitude below cocaine, during the developmental stage of the brain. So now not only the phone nonsense, but also the medication becomes hardwired. You know how people who start smoking when they are young are having troubles with stopping? It’s the same idea, just that your whole mood is affected, the very perception of your existence and purpose.
Imagine doing something great and feeling nothing; imagine feeling like nothing unless you constantly do something that is perceived as great.
TikTok didn’t start this, Western doctors did, with their chemical-based perception of the human mind. I never thought I would say this, but their complete lack of religious beliefs has destroyed their ability to see things rationally. At least when you believe in the soul, you realize that there is more to the brain than chemicals. Don’t get me started on antidepressants.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 months ago

Does inflating mental health problems harm and weaken Western society? Does the CCP want to harm and weaken Western society? Do the Chinese own and control TikTok? Join the dots.

Julia H
Julia H
2 months ago

I believe the correct spelling is ‘glamorises’.