“It’s kind of embarrassing to say, but the social media app TikTok figured out I had ADHD before I did,” writes 23-year-old Australian journalist Matilda Boseley in The Guardian.
“For 23 years my parents, my teachers, my doctor, my psychologist and my own brain all missed the warning signs, yet somehow it only took that app’s algorithm a few days to accidentally diagnose me…”
Growing up I had always had a nagging feeling that everyone else in the world was coping better than I was. Somehow they could remember appointments and deadlines, they had the discipline to keep an updated planner and they didn’t drift off daydreaming in the middle of important conversations… I just felt like there were 10 TVs constantly switched on in my head, and with so much going on, all the small things would fall through the cracks. It wasn’t until I downloaded TikTok that I truly considered I might have the disorder.
See, the app is based around the “for you” page which curates a stream of videos for you. It starts out pretty generic, but as you “like” some videos, and quickly scroll past others, the app’s algorithm builds a profile of you and your interests. And that profile is scarily accurate sometimes. It genuinely knew me better than I knew myself. What I think happened is that the algorithm noticed that every time a video titled something like “Five little known signs of ADHD in women” showed up on my feed I would watch it, fascinated, all the way to the end.
So, like the dystopian capitalism machine it is, the app showed me more and more of these videos desperate to keep me on the app and extract every possible advertising cent my eyeballs could buy. But, as a side effect, all of a sudden I was seeing ADHD content made by women and for women, for the very first time. It was like someone putting everything that always felt weird in my brain into words. Forgetting something exists if you can’t see it could be a problem with “object permanence”. Being unable to stand up and tidy my apartment, despite desperately wanting to, might not be laziness; it could be “executive dysfunction”. Suddenly it occurred to me, maybe I wasn’t somehow just “worse at being a person” than everyone else. Maybe I simply didn’t have enough dopamine in my brain. I can’t overstate how liberating that felt.
So I booked a doctor’s appointment, and three referrals, four months and about $700 later my new psychiatrist looked straight into the webcam and said: “Yes, I think you clearly have ADHD and you’ve had it for your whole life.” I cried from joy when he said it.
Mental health experts told me it wasn’t actually that surprising that hearing first-hand accounts of neurodivergence is what finally made the pin drop. In fact, Beyond Blue’s lead clinical advisor Dr Grant Blashki said social media could be an extraordinarily powerful tool for increasing what the medical community refer to as “mental health literacy”. In fact “learning you have ADHD on TikTok” is now such a common phenomenon that it’s become its own meme on the app. There isn’t any hard and fast data on the phenomenon but just from my own experience, since telling my friends about my diagnosis, no less than four people have come back to me saying they reckon they might have it too…
At the end of the day I am so grateful for TikTok, and the creators that make ADHD videos. That algorithm has profoundly changed my life, undoubtedly for the better.