The stigma surrounding mental illness has persisted since the mid-twentieth century. This stigma is one of the many reasons why 60% of adults with a mental illness often go untreated. The huge treatment disparity demonstrates a significant need to spread awareness and make treatment more readily available. Ironically, social media, which has been ridiculed for its negative impact on the mental health of its users, has become a really important tool for spreading awareness about and de-stigmatizing mental health treatment.
The content shared on social media is a combination of users sharing their experiences with a mental health condition and companies who treat mental health using advertisements to attract potential patients. At the first glance, this appears to be a very powerful way to use social media to bridge treatment gaps. However, it highlights concerns over vulnerable people seeing content and self-diagnosing themselves with a condition that they might not have and undergoing unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, treatment. Additionally, they might fail to undergo needed treatment because they are overlooking the true cause of their symptoms due to the misinformation they were subjected to.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) is an example of a condition that social media has jumped on. #ADHD has 14.5 billion views on TikTok and 3 million posts on Instagram. Between 2007 and 2016, diagnoses of ADHD increased by 123%. Further, prescriptions for stimulants, which treat ADHD, have increased 16% since the pandemic. Many experts are attributing this, in large part, to the use of social media in spreading awareness about ADHD and the rise of telehealth companies that have emerged to treat ADHD during the pandemic. These companies have jumped on viral trends with targeted advertisements that oversimplify what ADHD actually looks like and then offers treatment to those that click on the advertisement.
The availability and reliance of telemedicine grew rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and many restrictions regarding telehealth were suspended. This created an opening in the healthcare industry for these new companies. ‘Done’ and ‘Cerebral’ are two examples of companies that have emerged during the pandemic to treat ADHD. These companies attract, accept, and treat patients through a very simplistic procedure: (1) social media advertisements, (2) short online questionnaire, (2) virtual visit, and (3) prescription.
Both Done and Cerebral have utilized social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to lure potential patients to their services. The advertisements vary, but they all highlight how easy and affordable treatment is by emphasizing convenience, accessibility, and low cost. Accessing the care offered is as simple as swiping up on an advertisements that appear as users are scrolling on the platform. These targeted ads depict images of people seeking treatment, taking medication, and having their symptoms go away. Further, these companies utilize viral trends and memes to increase the effectiveness of the advertisements, which typically oversimplify complex ADHD symptoms and mislead consumers.
While these companies are increasing healthcare access for many patients due to the low cost and virtual platform, this speedy version of healthcare is blurring the line between offering treatment to patients and selling prescriptions to customers through social media. Further, medical professionals are concerned with how these companies are marketing addictive stimulants to young users, and, yet, remain largely unregulated due to outdated guidelines on advertisements for medical services.
The advertising model utilized by these telemedicine companies emphasize a need to modify existing laws to ensure that these advertisements are subjected to the FDA’s unique oversight to protect consumers. These companies are targeting young consumers and other vulnerable people to self-diagnose themselves with misleading information as to the criteria for a diagnosis. There are eighteen symptoms of ADHD and the average person meets at least one or two of those in the criteria, which is what these ads are emphasizing.
Advertisements in the medical sphere are regulated by either the FDA or the FTC. The FDA has unique oversight to regulate the marketing of prescription drugs by manufacturers and drug distributors in what is known as direct-to-consumer (“DTC”) drug advertising. The critics of prescription drug advertisements highlight the negative impact that DTC advertising has on the patient-provider relationship because patients go to providers expecting or requesting particular prescription treatment. In order to minimize these risks, the FDA requires that a prescription drug advertisement must be truthful, present a fair balance of the risks and benefits associated with the medications, and state an approved used of the medication. However, if the advertisement does not mention a particular drug or treatment, it eludes the FDA’s oversight.
Thus, the marketing of medical services, which does not market prescription drugs, is regulated only by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) in the same manner as any other consumer good, which just means that the advertisement must not be false or misleading.
The advertisements these Telehealth companies are putting forward demonstrate that it is time for the FDA to step in because they are combining medical services and prescription drug treatment. They use predatory tactics to lure consumers into believing they have ADHD and then provide them direct treatment on a monthly subscription basis.
The potential for consumer harm is clear and many experts are pointing to the similarities between the opioid epidemic and stimulant drugs. However, the FDA has not currently made any changes to how they regulate advertising in light of social media. The laws regarding DTC drug advertising were prompted in part by the practice of self-diagnosis/self-medication by consumers and the false therapeutic claims made by manufacturers. The telemedicine model these companies are using is emphasizing these exact concerns by targeting consumers, convincing them they have a specific condition, and then offering the medication to treat it after quick virtual visit. Instead of patients going to their doctors requesting a specific prescription that may be inappropriate for a patient’s medical needs, patients are going to the telehealth providers that only prescribe a particular prescription that may also be inappropriate for a patient’s medical needs.
Through the use of social media, diagnosis and treatment with addictive prescription drugs can be initiated by an interactive advertisement in a manner that was not possible when the FDA made the distinctions that these types of advertisements would not be subject to its oversight. Thus, to protect consumers, it is vital that telemedicine advertisements are subjected to a more intrusive monitoring than consumer goods. This will require the companies making these advertisements to properly address the complex symptoms associated with conditions like ADHD and give fair balance to the harms of treatment.
According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 81% of teens in the United States use social media. Further, about 48% of Americans get their information regularly from social media. We often talk about misinformation in politics and news stories, but it’s permeating every corner of the internet. As these numbers continue to grow, it’s crucial to develop new methods to protect consumers, and regulating these advertisements is only the first step.