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TikTok Tourettes: The rise of social media-induced illness

  • 04 November 2021
‘No one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook, except for Facebook,’ testified whistle-blower Frances Haugen to the US Senate, as she documented internal research showing Facebook was harming the mental health of teenagers and incentivising political extremism. However, Haugen’s call for reform at Facebook and other social media companies, may be underestimating the potential harms of social media.

At the same time as Facebook was being critiqued in the media for facilitating bullying and diminishing self-esteem, medical journals were discussing what may very well be the first documented case of social media induced mass psychogenic illness.

For the past two years, there has been a dramatic uptick in young people (almost exclusively females) presenting with tic-like behaviours indicative of Tourette Syndrome to specialist clinics in Canada, the United States, the UK, Germany and Australia.

Tourette Syndrome is a condition of the nervous system which causes people to have sudden twitches, movements or to involuntarily make sounds (known as ‘tics’). The onset of Tourette Syndrome is usually between the ages of four and seven years old, and is much more common in males than females, puzzling clinicians as to what would cause an onset in an older, more female demographic.

‘The tic-like behaviours developed rapidly over a course of hours or days, and the level of disability was extremely high’ Dr Tamara Pringsheim told MedScape, about her experiences in a Canadian clinic ‘many of these young people were unable to attend school due to the severity of their symptoms’.

The phenomena, coined ‘rapid onset tic-like behaviours’ in one paper, appears to be a form of functional neurological disorder with an unusual cause: social media.

'Mass psychogenic illness (colloquially known as ‘mass hysteria’) is the spread of illness signs or symptoms amongst members of a cohesive group with no corresponding organic cause.'

Clinicians began to notice commonalities in the behaviours of their female patients including a tendency to yell obscenities or odd words (a common trope in pop culture depictions of Tourette Syndrome, but rare in real life) and complex movements uncommon in standard tics, such as throwing objects across the room.

Social media has developed a niche subculture of content creators who document their lives living with (or pretending to live with) Tourette Syndrome.

Odd tic-like behaviours were incredibly common in TikTok and YouTube videos of people claiming to be dealing with Tourette Syndrome, a particular popular trend is videos depicting ‘cooking with Tourette’s’ where content creators struggle