Social media is being overwhelmed with ads for scammy mail-order ADHD startups

MediaMatters recently reported (via NBC) on the rise of the alleged-ADHD "influencer" culture that's taking over TikTok (and Instagram) with deceptive ads promising easy self-diagnosis and delivery miracle drugs:

A swarm of advertisements encouraging attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) self-diagnosis and medication have appeared on TikTok in recent weeks, potentially violating the platform's medical misinformation policy. TikTok seems to be prioritizing profit over the safety of its young user base by allowing companies to promote medication for a broad set of symptoms, such as being "chatty."


Although the report states that TikTok has since removed those specific advertisements, a Media Matters review found ads from Cerebral and other companies offering ADHD treatment that were similar to the ads TikTok took down. The ads seem to be capitalizing on the TikTok phenomenon of ADHD self-diagnosis, in which some creators oversimplify the disorder, leading viewers to try to decide themselves whether they have the disorder, sometimes incorrectly. This can push users to inappropriately seek ADHD medication, which can have dangerous side effects if used improperly. Self-diagnosis on TikTok is well-documented and can be dangerous

I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2006, being the rare college student who did not want someone giving them easy access to adderall. That pill is certainly a cure-all on its own; I've invested a lot of time in modifying my habits and behaviors, something which was only enabled by having the language to understand why I was constantly feeling just out-of-sync with the rest of the world. I've been pretty open with my diagnosis since then as well. While there are differing schools of thought on this, I find that it helps with managing expectations. Regardless of the situation, I'm probably not navigating in precisely the way that most people would, so I like to make it clear that I'm not being rude, I'm not deliberately interrupting, I'm not not paying attention, I just present differently. I also do this because I've had some struggles with people not respecting that my brain tends to function on a different wavelength. I had a manager at a job who frequently policed my process more than my deliverables, and when I finally asked HR for ADHD accommodations (a legal right, under the ADA), that same manager tried to fire me in retaliation. And that fucked me up for a while!

I've been receiving a lot of these ads for mail-order ADHD miracles. They've always smelled like bullshit to me. The Media Matters piece amplified my morbid curiosity, so I decided to try to sign up for some of these services. I still remember the frustrations of the Great Adderall Shortage of 2011, and while I assume none of these services are actually sending out highly-regulated amphetamines through mail order, I did kind of want to know what, exactly, sort of bullshit solutions they were peddling. So I entered my Burner Sign-Up info, but otherwise answered all the "quick evaluation" questions honestly (as someone who has been on Adderall for 15 years and figured a lot of shit out but is understandably still reeling with the behavioral interruptions of being a new parent in an ongoing pandemic).

First up was Ahead, who told me I was too fucked up for them to help. Whether that's an indictment on me or them, I'll let you decide.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cerebral — whose evaluation questionnaire was almost identical to Ahead, down to the syntax — told me that I probably don't have ADHD but I could still give them $80 a month for treatment. Similarly, ADHD Online wanted me to pay $150 up front, insurance be damned, before I even got an answer:

In the process of doing all of this, I received an ad promising to somehow alter my DNA and re-wire my complete inherent function, thereby eliminating ADHD entirely from my personality and existence.

The Media Matters mentions some similarly shady ads, promising to reduce chattiness, or obesity, et cetera. Which, sure, some of those things can be connected to behavioral patterns that stem from untreated ADHD, maybe. But it's also some serious fuckin eugenics shit, which ends up perpetuating harmful stereotypes like that people with ADHD are just lazy assholes and maybe some amphetamines will perk them up and make them feel better?

That company, "Done," also had a website that wouldn't let me click through to my "final evaluation" in Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, on my phone, or my laptop. Very helpful for people with executive function struggles! In fact, it was actively difficult for me to get far enough along in any of these processes so that I could get an appointment with someone, or even figure out what my pharmacological options were.

Still, that may be preferable to Thesis, which delivered me an ad specifically targeting Adderall use…

…only to talk around my "evaluation" and offer me another expensive Nootropic bullshit solution:

It was actively difficult for me to get far enough along in any of these processes so that I could get an appointment with someone, or even figure out what my pharmacological options were.

If you're still reading, I hope you've reached the same conclusion that I did: that these are a bunch of con artist trying to run a self-help pyramid scheme on people who are feeling bored or depressed or vaguely under stimulated after 2 years of a weirdly reduced pandemic life. Which, yes, totally sucks! And maybe you should see a therapist! But "feeling unmotivated because every day is the same and I barely leave my house anymore" is not the same as "having ADHD."

To be fair: ADHD is typically overlooked and underdiagnosed in young girls and people of color, and perhaps some of these ads will help some of those people decide to seek the help they need. I'll also concede that the ways we deal with ADHD in children may not be ideal in general. Tyler Page's brilliant graphic novel memoir Raised on Ritalin does a fantastic job navigating not only the complicated diagnostic/pharmacological history of the ADHD diagnosis (as well as other conditions that we accidentally discovered by drugging people who were somehow socially or emotionally "divergent"), but also the grey areas of what it means to treat a developing mind with these drugs. Looking back on my own life, I can recognize that (1) I wasn't diagnosed younger because ADHD was a condition reserved for "problem students," and I was smart, even though I was also a mess; and that (2) I don't know if I would have wanted to have taken Ritalin (or anything else) back then. But none of that means that ADHD is a fake condition, nor is it something that be "cured" with some predatory marketing subscription service.

TikTok is enabling predatory ADHD advertisers to target young users [Olivia Little / Media Matters]

Image: Amen Clinics / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)