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Teens, Social Media, and the Trouble with Self-Diagnosis

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Teens, Social Media, and the Trouble with Self-Diagnosis

Oct 02, 2023

In an age when social media heavily influences youth, many teens are quick to label themselves with mental health conditions they see trending online. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, highlights the intricacies of diagnosing conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. She also emphasizes the need for expert mental health evaluations and helps parents understand the potential hazards when teens misdiagnose themselves based on online content.

Episode Transcript

There is an alarming new trend in teens thanks to social media: self-diagnosing mental disorders. We all know that apps like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram can draw teens in, but now we are seeing teens intentionally looking up videos about mental health to diagnose themselves with different mental health conditions.

Social Media Influence on Teen Mental Health

Teens are at a very impressionable age. They want to belong. They want to find their people. They want to find themselves. So when they see glimpses of themselves in a video about a mental health disorder, they automatically jump to the conclusion that they should be diagnosed with that disorder.

Kids are now telling their parents that they believe they have ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, bipolar, and more, just because they saw a video about it.

Pediatricians and mental health specialists all agree social media has definitely contributed to the mental health crisis in kids. While it's good to bring awareness to mental health, it's another thing for teens to post all their deep dark secrets for other teens to see and influence others to think that they might have those diagnoses as well.

The Importance of Professional Diagnosis

The only people who should actually be making mental health diagnoses are professionals who are trained to evaluate mental health conditions. Even as a pediatrician, I am not trained to evaluate all kinds of mental health conditions. That's where psychiatrists help out immensely.

This new trend has sounded the alarm to parents, therapists, school counselors, pediatricians, and, yes, psychiatrists.

We all know that, as adults, we will look up symptoms and basically find websites that eventually connect the dots to tell us we have a certain diagnosis. However, this isn't always good because you need to actually have a reliable source of information. WebMD and other professional medical group sites are often okay. But when you're just reading someone's blog, you are not necessarily getting science-based information.

Teens and Online Self-Diagnosis

And teens don't look up information based on science, in general. They look up influencers who talk about their own mental health symptoms and what treatments they are doing. They will look up quizzes and symptom checklists to see if they meet the criteria for whatever they think they have. And it's not always reliable because kids, and even adults, can be manipulated to put answers that they think the quiz or checklist wants them to say.

The tricky thing with all of these searches is that those apps and even Google have algorithms that will keep putting mental health videos and websites in the teens' feed, reinforcing what their brain is already searching for, a diagnosis of what they're feeling.

In the best-case scenario, it can lead a teen to get help for a condition they do actually have. However, in the worst-case scenario, a teen can be so focused on thinking they have a certain diagnosis that they will be hard to convince if they really don't have that diagnosis, insisting they do have that mental health condition and even continue to believe that they need treatment for the condition that they don't actually medically meet the criteria for.

According to several mental health resources, this trend started rapidly increasing around 2021. Some psychologists believe that teens are over-identifying with a specific diagnosis because it justifies their behavior, and they use it as a crutch. "Oh, my oppositional defiant disorder made me break into my neighbor's house." No, it didn't.

Some believe that it helps lower their expectations of what they think they should be when they don't measure up to social insecurities.

I've talked to some therapists who are actually shocked at the psychological vocabulary that some teens are using. One said it's like teens are quoting textbooks with the verbiage that they use.

Mental Health Resources for Teens

Something else that therapists acknowledge is an issue is access. Not every therapist is comfortable seeing teenagers. Some therapists and psychiatrists have long waiting lists. Some insurances are really stingy on who they will actually cover. There isn't the support that is needed to figure out, "Okay, what does this teen actually meet the diagnostic criteria for?"

In the absence of actual resources, what we are seeing is that teens will seek out diagnosing themselves to get answers, even if they are not the correct answers.

Social media companies recognize what is going on, but haven't done much to curb teens' searches. Parental controls can only do so much.

This past May, the U.S. Surgeon General put out an advisory note stating that social media use presents a profound risk of harm to kids. The office called for action from policymakers and tech companies to make changes to protect the impact of social media on youth mental health.

Now, this isn't to say that all social media is bad when it comes to mental health issues. Many positives are support groups for parents and teens, and videos where specialists can let people know of different coping skills and therapies available.

Parental Guidance: Navigating Teens' Mental Health Discussions

The bottom line here is your teen's brain is still developing. They are very susceptible to anything that they can identify with. They want to figure out their identity.

If they come to you and say they think they have this or that mental health issue, ask questions. Find out their source of information. Get them to see their pediatrician who can either help confirm their diagnosis or help them understand why they don't have a certain condition.

If there are questions as to what their diagnosis is, your pediatrician can refer them to a mental health provider who is probably more qualified to answer diagnostic information than someone on social media.