Spend any amount of time on a major social media platform, and you’re bound to run into ads that use lifestyle content to lure you into seeking out an ADHD diagnosis. But what’s in it for the companies desperate to draw you in?
TikTok won’t stop trying to diagnose me with ADHD.
Joke’s on them, though — I’m already diagnosed! But even while I’ve never looked up ADHD-related videos on TikTok, made content about it or even Googled anything related to ADHD in recent memory, every 10 or so videos I swipe through leads me to another advertisement promoting telehealth services to “get me the help I need.” What the fuck is going on?
For the last several months, companies like Cerebral and Done have been promoting their online diagnosis and prescriber services for ADHD on TikTok and Instagram, often mimicking the format of traditional social media reels to give the viewer a sense that they’re just witnessing the content of an average person trying to be helpful. “Five signs of inattentive ADHD in women,” one begins. “What life with ADHD was like before Cerebral,” another will offer, showing a young woman in her apartment just like everyone else on the app.
These videos then reveal themselves to be ads, linking out to websites where one allegedly gets a diagnosis of ADHD within minutes by having a phone call or video chat with a doctor and then getting prescription stimulant medications like Adderall shipped right to them. While undoubtedly this service is helpful to people with ADHD or those who suspect they might need an accessible means of getting treatment, people are also highly suspicious of the fact that these companies are advertising to teenagers in what appears to be an attempt to convince them that they have ADHD.
Moreover, there’s potential for people to abuse these services in order to receive stimulants for recreational use, which do have some potential for abuse. As it stands, some studies point to ADHD already being overdiagnosed and overprescribed, though some demographics may be underdiagnosed and underprescribed.
“I heard you might have ADHD,” one satirical video titled, “Those Sketchy ADHD Ads” from @marie.pax begins. “Do you have any of these symptoms? 1. Wants an Adderall prescription. Great, just fill out this form and you can have a prescription in two hours. If you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this sounds illegal,’ wrong. It’s morally gray at best.”
Some of these companies have gotten into trouble for their advertising. In January, both TikTok and Meta pulled down ads from Cerebral that associated ADHD with obesity after numerous complaints. In February, Media Matters published a report that found that both Cerebral and Done were intentionally targeting young users, but that TikTok continued to financially benefit from these ads anyway.
In many cases, receiving a formal ADHD diagnosis is challenging. It requires in-person doctor visits, psychiatric consultations and even formal testing. Moreover, most major pharmacies won’t mail ADHD stimulants to patients, even if they offer other prescriptions through the mail, exactly because they’re designated as a controlled substance. That makes companies like Cerebral and Done convenient, but also points to them shirking what other pharmacies see as a liability or ethical risk.
But again, the problem isn’t necessarily that these companies exist, it’s their rampant advertising to teens, people who already have ADHD and those who just plain don’t want to be constantly blasted with such ads. It feels all the more insidious when we consider how often social media companies gear their ad placement strategically toward what they know of a person, their search history and online interests. It’s not that these companies actually think you have ADHD, but that you seem like the type of person who could be convinced that they do (or the type of person who wants an Adderall prescription, regardless).
As always, these ads are never trying to help. They’re just trying to sell you something.