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Many kids and teens — and even adults — go to TikTok for information on ADHD. They search for tips, advice, personal stories, and sometimes even a diagnosis. But is everything they find on TikTok legit? How can we help our kids navigate TikTok, especially when we may not even understand it ourselves?

In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra learn all about the world of ADHD TikTok with Dr. Sasha Hamdani. Dr. Sasha is a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD and anxiety. She also has ADHD, and she uses TikTok and other social media platforms to provide ADHD tips and debunk myths. Tune in to hear Dr. Sasha explain why many people with ADHD find TikTok helpful — and what to watch out for.

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Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today we're talking about the wonderful, sometimes overwhelming world of ADHD TikTok.

Gretchen: Yes, ADHD TikTok is a thing. People go there to exchange information, tips, and stories. And one bright light in that messy, noisy world is Dr. Sasha.

Rachel: Sasha Hamdani is a psychiatrist based in Kansas City, specializing in ADHD and anxiety disorders. And in the past few years, she's also become an influencer, thanks to her informative, accessible, and sometimes deeply personal short videos on TikTok and Instagram. These posts routinely get hundreds of thousands of likes. Here's one where she explains what it's like to experience what she calls executive dysfunction.

Dr. Sasha: To ask yourself these questions, do you often forget appointments and tasks? Do you have a hard time putting thoughts and abstract concepts into words? Do you have a hard time navigating setbacks? Are you miserable at multi-step directions? Have you ever tried to assemble an IKEA desk without instructions? Because they seem complicated, then you get overwhelmed and basically weld together two pieces that should never have gone together. Then get even more overwhelmed when you try to pull it apart. So, you push it to the side of the room where it will remain till the end of time.

Gretchen: If you listen to "ADHD Aha!," one of the other podcasts in the Understood Network, you may have heard Dr. Sasha talk about her own ADHD journey. She was first diagnosed in fourth grade and began taking medication soon after, but she didn't actually know she had ADHD until she embarked on an accelerated medical school program straight out of high school.

Rachel: Under that intense pressure and on her own for the first time, things fell apart. It was only then that she found out her diagnosis. This led first to a lot of pain and confusion and then to a deep dive into how ADHD affects the brain, the body, our thoughts, and our feelings.

Gretchen: It's an incredible story and I highly recommend you go listen to it if you haven't already. But today, we wanted to talk to Dr. Sasha about what she's up to now.

Rachel: Specifically, we've invited her to walk us through the world of ADHD TikTok. What does it have to offer people who are trying to understand ADHD? And where does it sometimes lead us astray?

Gretchen: So, Dr. Sasha, nice to see you and nice to have you here.

Dr. Sasha: Yeah, likewise.

Gretchen: We're so excited to talk TikTok with you today. But before we get into that, let's look back to a time when there was no TikTok. You were diagnosed with ADHD back in the nineties, though, as you've said elsewhere, you didn't know about the diagnosis at the time. Even so, do you remember other kids or grown-ups talking about ADHD and how they talked about it back then?

Dr. Sasha: So, I try to remember back, and I think honestly, I don't remember it being part of the discourse at all. And keep in mind, I'm in fourth grade, like I don't know what we're talking about. I became more aware of that concept in general, not that I had it, but that concept in general in high school, and it was used to describe like when a boy was acting out of control and couldn't keep it together.

Gretchen: Totally.

Dr. Sasha: And it was actually part of like a slang or almost like a put down like fat kid. And we weren't using ADHD yet. "That kid is so ADHD" or "They can't stay in their seat. They can't keep their hands to themselves." So, that was kind of, in my limited scope of things, that was my understanding of it.

Gretchen: Mm hmm. I mean, I remember people using ADD as a negative term and a put down, like you said. So, now that you work with patients who have ADHD, do you get a sense that that same kind of put down or that shame and embarrassment around ADHD is part of their experience?

Dr. Sasha: I think it's less because we're talking about it more, and I think that just happens as you increase cultural competence around a certain topic and as you just open up dialog. I think that people still do experience quite a bit of stigma and not just in the early childhood or early adolescence period, but I think it bleeds over into adulthood also, like when they're trying to figure out accommodations for work or trying to figure out how they approach this with a loved one or a spouse or a partner or whatever. So, I think that there is still a pretty significant stigma, although it is less.

Gretchen: OK. Makes sense.

Rachel: So, let's pivot now and talk about how TikTok has become part of the conversation around ADHD. And first, can you just explain what TikTok is and how people, especially young people, use it these days? I think there are probably some parents and caregivers out there in our listening world who are maybe not in the know or still learning about the phenomenon of TikTok. And honestly, that includes me because every time I think I'm like, "OK, I've got it," I'll come across some new feature. And then I'm like, "Oh, no, no, I don't really understand this at all."

Gretchen: Same with me.

Rachel: So, tell us about the TikTok.

Dr. Sasha: Sure. From the history of what I understood about it, it started off primarily as a music app. People would use it for learning dances and lip-synching, and there's still a significant portion of that. But early in quarantine, we saw that it really exploded, and it started to take off more as this social media channel and platform that people could use to connect to each other and then really exposing us more to this vertical video form in small, digestible chunks. And you just kind of scroll through.

So, for people with ADHD and things, it's, you know, you can find yourself just spending a lot of time there. And so I think, number one, that's part of the appeal of it. And number two, that's part of the reason why I think ADHD was so talked about during that time because I think it just naturally lended to people of neurodivergence whose brains were moving faster, really gravitated towards that form of media.

Gretchen: My kids do a lot of the dance portions, and I may have been roped into some. Never posted, just saved in drafts.

Dr. Sasha: Sure.

Gretchen: Your mother cannot be posted.

Rachel: I do know about saved in draft.

Gretchen: But if I were to go on TikTok though, and type in ADHD, what is going to come up?

Dr. Sasha: A lot is going to come up. So, first and foremost, it's important to understand that both with TikTok, and actually with a lot of the algorithms, their interest based. So, depending on what you're clicking on and what you're engaging with, you're going to see more of that. So, if you type in ADHD and you're already kind of moving down this ADHD pathway of like what happens with the emotional side of ADHD or things like that, you're going to get a lot of that. If you are down the unfortunate rabbit hole of is ADHD real or not, you're going to get a lot of that.

So, it kind of depends on what you've been interacting with, but there's kind of all different spectrums. There's educational stuff, there is lived stories, stuff of people talking about their own experience. There is marketing for ADHD-related medication apps and behavioral management apps. I think ADHD is kind of become a little bit of a buzzword on the Internet right now. And so, I think there's also a lot of exploitation of ADHD in that a lot of people are using that to hook an audience in for relatability.

Rachel: Right.

Dr. Sasha: There's a lot there's good, there's bad, there's garbage, there's tons.

Rachel: Yeah. So, I think it's fair to say that the ADHD presence on TikTok is a phenomenon. What would you say are the pros and cons of this phenomenon? I mean, we can start with the pros. Is there good stuff out there? Helpful information. I mean, I think your content is really helpful.

Dr. Sasha: Yeah. So, I think there is a lot of good. So, when I originally started, I started in December of 2020, and it was because I was seeing patients remotely and they were showing me videos like via telehealth, and I was like, "No, no, no, that's not a thing." And so, I originally started posting videos to kind of counteract some of that information. But then as I immersed myself more in it, there were really good avenues of information and a lot of physicians were getting on there, a lot of behavioral therapists, a lot of authors.

So, I felt like there was a really good source of information from TikTok. But in order to get to that solid source of information, you're also exposed to some not-so-solid information. And so, you're left to kind of sort through. And unfortunately for some of those, not-so-good information, like if you are getting a lot of fighting in the comments, if you are getting a lot of engagement that's pushing this video up the algorithm and eventually you kind of start to lose sight of is while this video has 10 million views, that must mean it's accurate. Not like "This video is 10 million views because it's garbage."

Rachel: Right. Can you give us an example of a specific time where you were like, "No, that's not a thing." Or like, "This is actually not helpful."

Dr. Sasha: I mean, the video that I originally wanted to, I remember the patient showed me a video of someone who sneezed multiple times in a row, and that it was a sign of neurodivergence. And I was like....

Gretchen: What? 

Dr. Sasha: What? And then I was like, "Wait, I do sneeze multiple times in a row." And I'm like, "No, what? No."

Gretchen: It's like a horoscope. You just read into it, right?

Dr. Sasha: I know. And so, I'm like, "This is crazy. This is not diagnostic criteria. What is this?" So, there's stuff like that. There was a lot of stuff like if you can follow multiple songs at once, you have ADHD. So, it's like very clickbaity stuff that people were reading into and they were like, "Oh, I have this." And so, the problem is, is that to be totally frank with you, self-diagnosis actually doesn't bother me very much. I have a problem with self-treatment.

So, in terms of self-diagnosis, like, I think it's important to understand and find names for your own internal environment. Be curious, ask questions about what's going on internally because you're, you should be the expert on your own brain. But a lot of people don't have the training to kind of sift together and figure out all these multiple data points. And that's why seeing a professional can be helpful in trying to figure out and cement or corroborate is this the right diagnosis? Were you missing something? And may help you with, if that needs treatment in some regard.

Gretchen: Right. Right. And so, like the sneezing example — that's such a good example of you know, something that I could see my kids watching and being like, "Oh, mom, I must have this. Right?" So, I like that your work, you include a lot of explainers and concrete information about ADHD in your social media posts. What are some of the ideas or maybe misconceptions that you in particular are focused on trying to tackle?

Dr. Sasha: I think the biggest one I'm trying to tackle is that ADHD is very nuanced. And so I think that's part of the reason why it's important to get that formal diagnosis because I don't think a lot, especially for females, there's not a lot of good concrete information about the emotional component and the dysregulation that happens there.

And so, that's where you get a lot of misdiagnoses with depression and anxiety and cycling mood disorders and things like that where it's really ADHD. And so, you're on these heavy hitter medications which are hurting you more than they're helping you when really you're just misdiagnosed. So, I think it's important to just kind of recognize that that could be a phenomenon happening.

Rachel: We already touched on this a bit, but I'd love to talk a little more about this phenomenon of people casually throwing around the ADHD label, kind of using it as shorthand for like, "Oh, I'm easily distracted," or "I go down a rabbit hole watching YouTube videos for hours." What's your feeling about that?

Dr. Sasha: So, I think it's important to recognize, like number one, as someone who does have ADHD, that's so annoying to me, it's so objectively annoying. Like in medical school when at was first, figuring out this diagnosis and I had a lot of peers that were like, "Well, I do that too." And I'm like, "You really don't, because it's not impacting you in the same..." like everybody has distractible moments for sure. But this is so pervasive in nature. It's my all-day, everyday state. And so, I think that it's really annoying. But how I've learned to handle things like that is to instead of approaching it with like immediate animosity, which was my go-to for a long time, is approaching it with curiosity, right?

And so, like sometimes people are, number one, they're doing that because truly they think that ADHD is just this piecemeal kind of diagnosis where if you're sometimes distractible, and so that might be an episode where you can educate and you could be like, "That's interesting that you're having those phenomenons. I'm sure you know how it feels. What's interesting about how I present it is that it is all the time." And so, you could use that as an educational thing, or you can also approach it in like this sense of curiosity. Like maybe they really do have ADHD...

Rachel: Yeah.

Dr. Sasha: ...and they don't have resources and they don't know where to start this journey. And so, using it as like, "OK, they might be trying to open up a dialog about that. How can I help you?"

Gretchen: I mean, I've heard my own kids talking about kids they know who have ADHD and like, "Oh yeah, like they do this" or Oh, that's because, you know, she got distracted because of this." And they seem to, they seem to know it. But then sometimes I fear, though, that the way that kids are talking about it is maybe to like just off the cuff, like, I don't know, it feels like there could be sometimes a fine line drawn between those two areas.

Dr. Sasha: Yeah, I would say that I think it's important to just not be on either end of the spectrum, right? And not overly stigmatized and not overly nonchalant about it. But at the same time, like if I had to pick I'd rather be the more nonchalant about it because I think that it's that inherent stigma, like such a significant limitation to care because people are so reluctant to carry that diagnosis because of it. And so, if people are like, "Ah, whatever,"...

Gretchen: Right?

Dr. Sasha: ...OK, fine. Like, you can get treated and you can go forward, and you could feel a little bit more normal in settings that you might have previously felt were issues.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: So, taking a step back, can you talk about social media a little bit more broadly? What impact are you seeing it have on your patients?

Dr. Sasha:Social media has a lot more impact than it did ten years ago for sure, and ten years before that it didn't even exist. So, like, I think that we're moving to a period in our culture where social media is such an influence because it's replacing our news, it's replacing our correspondence, it's replacing how we interact with each other. And so, now we're heading to this singular source to kind of fill multiple, multiple needs, which inherently increases how important it is to us.

Rachel: Mm hmm.

Dr. Sasha: So, I think that based on that increase in importance, yeah, of course, it's impacting my patients and myself hugely, right? I mean, it's become such a significant portion of your life. And you realize that when you spend so much time on social media that you're like, "OK, this is, it's having significant impact." Now, what I will say is just like, circling back to the beginning part of this conversation about those algorithms being interest based, it's really important to be conscious of that.

And this is what I talk to about my patients, if you're spending a significant amount of time on social media, it's important to be conscious of the content you consume because what's going to happen is you're going to be fed that content more and more often, and social media should be a safe place for you. It should be a place that's very cultivated.

So, if there's something that you're like, "Ooh, this makes me feel bad about myself. Oh, I'm comparing myself too much. I feel unsettled after watching that," you should block, you should mute, you should get off of that trend. And that involves people as well. Like if there's social interactions that you are not feeling at the time, I feel like it’s social media, is the place to protect your peace. It's important.

Gretchen: That's good advice. And so, then if you're a parent trying to pass on some advice to your kids about being on social media, do you have any advice about that, about how parents should be talking to their kids about it?

Dr. Sasha: So, I've thought about this because I've thought about how to handle it with my own children — I mean, I don't know what it's going to even look like when they get old enough to deal with that. But I think my go-to is going to literally pull out an anatomy textbook and be like, "This is your frontal lobe. This is not developed." The frontal lobe, judgment processing, it's all about input of data and figuring out what to do with it with a young and developing brain. You're being flooded at all times with input.

And so, if you're not getting the right kind of input, that's going to shape how you mature and develop. And so, to put those expectations on a young child of how to responsibly consume content is really difficult. So, I think it needs parental mediation for sure.

Rachel: Well, on that note, you know, a lot of kids use TikTok, we know. How young is too young? Or is there such a thing as too young to be posting on TikTok? Like, at what point is someone kind of like in the right place to do that?

Dr. Sasha: I don't know. So, I started building an ADHD app and initially I wanted, I really loved the community component of TikTok and social media, and I wanted to bring that, but I decided not to because I couldn't do a good enough job moderating what was in there. And I feel like that's one of the biggest drawbacks.

And so, if you're allowing kids to post and you are allowing kids to consume content on that, there's not a whole lot of filtering you can do. There's just not. There's not, you can't control what other people are saying to them. You can't control what other people are viewing. You can't control and limit it, I mean, I guess you could do friends only, but like there are workarounds on that.

So, it really is a case-to-case dependent situation and it really depends on your parenting philosophy. I don't, I can't give a good answer because I don't think there is one answer.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: Yes. And I really, this has been really helpful for me, and I really appreciate it. And I've been showing my daughter some of your videos because I'm like, "Well, if you want to see TikTok, I'm going to show you some TikTok."

Dr. Sasha: There you go. I think the other thing that TikTok does, which is great, is that it opens up dialog. You know, that becomes a new form of communication. You're sending TikToks that are relatable to the other person to open up a little bit of conversation. But people do that with their doctors too. They show me but TikToks and are like, "This is exactly like me. I just don't have the words to say it." So, I think it's an interesting phenomenon on that thing too.

Gretchen: I never thought about sending a TikTok to my doctor.

Dr. Sasha: It's weird. It's not actually like to my doctor, but like in a visit, they're just like, "I want to show you something."

Gretchen: Yeah, I usually just have a post-it note. But maybe next time I'll have something else.

Dr. Sasha: Just pull a TikTok.

Rachel: I just have a notes app. I'm like, "Hold on. No, that's my grocery. Wait a minute.".

Gretchen: Well, Dr. Sasha I want to thank you so much for joining us today. This has been such a good conversation.

Rachel: Yes. Thank you so much. This was really interesting, and it was so great to meet you.

Dr. Sasha: Yeah, likewise. It was so fun.

Gretchen:To hear more from Dr. Sasha, check out her TikTok @thepsychdoctormd, or as we mentioned before, on our very own "ADHD Aha!"podcast.

Rachel: Also, she's got a book out. It's called "Self-Care for People With ADHD," and it's full of life hacks and insights.

Gretchen: Last but not least, Dr. Sasha tells us her new app called Focus Genie should be out in the world in the next month or two, so keep an eye out for that. You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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