How to spot an ADHD sufferer? Their tweets will give it away, study finds

New research shows that people with ADHD are prone to tweeting in the middle of the night and often lament about their lack of focus or mental exhaustion

PHILADELPHIA — To walk in the shoes of someone suffering from ADHD, all you have to do is look at their Twitter feed, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 1.3 million public tweets posted by nearly 1,400 Twitter users who self-reported having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, against missives posted by individuals similar in age, gender, and social media activity, but who didn’t identify as having ADHD.

Person using phone in bed
A new study finds that ADHD sufferers are prone to using Twitter in the middle of the night, and often tweet about their mental exhaustion.

“On social media, where you can post your mental state freely, you get a lot of insight into what these people are going through, which might be rare in a clinical setting,” explains co-author Sharath Guntuku in a news release. “In brief 30- or 60-minute sessions with patients, clinicians might not get all manifestations of the condition, but on social media you have the full spectrum.”

The researchers’ gleanings from the tweets included behaviors already previously documented (e.g., individuals addled with ADHD using marijuana at increased rates), along with newer ones that hadn’t been as closely studied in ADHD sufferers, such as a lack of focus, self-regulation, and intention.

Those studied tended to succumb to failure more easily; indicate mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion; use negative language; and post during the middle of the night.

“People with ADHD are experiencing more mood swings and more negativity,” says Lyle Ungar, the study’s other co-author. “They tend to have problems self-regulating.”

Ungar speculates that Twitter’s value proposition for ADHD sufferers may be its ability to provide a quick dose of satisfaction to its users, creating a feedback loop (i.e., likes and retweets prompt continued use).

While their findings may offer valuable insight, the researchers acknowledge that they could also have unintended consequences in practice. For example, a therapist scavenging on social media could use their inferences to prematurely diagnose or misdiagnose.

In addition, it’s important to remember that the study’s participants self-reported their diagnosis, meaning that it may have been inaccurate to start with.

Still, a better comprehension of what ADHD entails, including its various components and the coping mechanisms that its sufferers use, will “all lead to a better understanding of the condition,” Ungar argues.

At some later point, both Ungar and Guntuku hope to build custom apps that can help provide additional insight into other conditions, such as stress, anxiety, depression, and opioid addiction, along with ADHD.

The study’s findings were published this month in the Journal of Attention Disorders.


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