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Some teenagers are faking Tourette's and Dissociative Identity Disorder on YouTube and TikTok, and many others are led to believe that they may have ADHD, OCD, or depression after watching a short video. What's going on?

Gen Z — generally defined very loosely as folks born between around 1995 and 2010, with those born between 2000 and 1015 also fitting into Generation Alpha — is likely more open about mental disorders than any generation that preceded it. While the American Psychological Association reports that 90 percent of the adult portion of Gen Z readily admits to having experienced mental health problems, it isn't necessarily true that the "youth of today" is more mentally ill than those that came before them.

Gen Z-ers might be facing unique challenges, but they're almost certainly no worse off than their slightly older counterparts. Instead, this hyper-connected generation is simply:

  • Rejecting the stigma that is still attached to mental health issues in many places, and choosing to discuss their struggles openly. 
  • Embracing therapy as a treatment modality. 
  • More able than ever before to connect with others facing similar struggles, for support.
  • More likely to have access to information regarding mental disorders — whereas their parents and grandparents relied on medical professionals for information about their health, the generations who have grown up, and are still growing up, alongside the world wide web just Google their symptoms.

All of this was already "trending", so to say, and when the COVID-19 pandemic instantly changed our entire way of life, many of these factors were only amplified. Suddenly, people found themselves coping with a really scary thing that had the potential to kill them and their loved ones, and that forced them to stay home and isolate themselves from many of their most important social networks. All of a sudden, the already high mental illness rate of one in five shot up to 80 percent, the United Nations reports.

What was left? The internet, of course. The pandemic gave everyone plenty of time to delve into their mental health. The results can be incredibly positive, but also rather scary. If you are currently raising teenagers, or even younger kids, you may be under the impression that the social media content they consume mostly consists of music, fashion tips, art tutorials, and gaming videos — but platforms like YouTube and TikTok are also full of mental health content.

Much of it is uploaded under the guise of raising awareness. Indeed, much of it does precisely that. But among the tools and tips that help young people live healthier, happier, and more fulfilled lives, rather dark sub-genres are also hidden. We'll call these the "fake disorder" (or "illness appropriation") and "self-diagnosis" sub-genres, and if you're a parent, you need to know about both.

What Are 'Fake Disorder' Videos, and Why Are They Dangerous? 

In the fast-moving world of social media and vlogs, drama creates clicks — and clicks lead to money. I discovered the dark and twisted world of fake disorder videos after a fairly popular YouTuber, who was making videos about living with Tourette Syndrome, was exposed for not having the disorder at all. The person in question eventually admitted to not having a diagnosis, and though she stopped short of admitting that she never had Tourette's, it was quite apparent that she didn't after another set of videos, in which she promoted her business, was found to be consistently tic-less, no matter how long the videos were. 

We're not here for the disaster tourism, so we won't share links (though if you're really interested, Googling "Tourette Syndrome YouTuber exposed" will get you there soon enough). There's plenty more where that came from, it turns out, and while there's certainly social media stars faking physical conditions, too, mental health disorders — which are not externally visible — are far more common. The phenomenon has already been dubbed Munchausen by Internet, Apart from Tourette's Syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, dissociative identity disorder, and anxiety disorders seem to be some of the most commonly faked disorders.

These particular videos can have a large impact on children and teenagers:

  • As social media stars "perform" an exaggerated and extreme form of a disorder, there's the risk that those who do live with the disorder feel mocked.
  • People who truly have a disorder may suddenly be "called out" as "fakers", even though they are not.
  • Kids gain the impression that it's OK to do anything for clicks and fame, including pretending to have a serious illness that others in fact suffer from.

Dr Google Taken to an Extreme: Are Kids Self-Diagnosing Themselves After Watching TikTok Videos?

"So, I took a Buzzfeed quiz", one teenager can be seen to say on YouTube, "and now I'm diagnosed with something."

The current online environment is so ambiguous that it isn't even clear whether she actually believes Buzzfeed could diagnose her with something, or she's mocking people who do this. Either way, it's a real danger. 

Imagine that a video titled "6 signs you might have ADHD" pops up on your recommended feed. You watch it and find out that forgetting why you walked in a room, being distractible, often being late, impulse buying, losing things, and hyperfocusing on video games could all be signs that you have ADHD. Wow! You do all of these things, so you could really have this disorder!

Your interest piqued, you keep scrolling. And you keep finding confirmation that your symptoms indeed point to ADHD. After a while, you become so convinced that you've essentially self-diagnosed yourself. 

It happens, and instead of ADHD, you can just as easily insert depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, autism, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Indeed, "feeling like you don't fit in" is often described as one symptom of being transgender or non-binary, and vulnerable young people who don't feel like they fit in (isn't that all of them, really?) could soon find themselves exploring a rabbit hole with an entirely different shape. Some may feel that, to be cool or liked, they have to be neuro-atypical or to have a mental disorder, and essentially talk themselves into feeling like they do.

The "self-diagnosed" teens who spread "awareness" aren't malicious, unlike the fakers out there. They are, however, dangerous — these videos spread the idea that you can diagnose yourself with mental disorders via the internet, when the truth is that numerous disorders have overlapping symptoms, and only a qualified mental health professional who actually understands your history can make a diagnosis. 

Even if these teens were reading the DSM, which they're not, they'd be better off — but the truth is that TikTok and YouTube are their native habitats, and that's where they'll go for info. It's high time that parents get in on the conversation, so that they know what's going on; and we hope that knowing what's out there can help you find a starting point.

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