TikTok Tourettes: The rise of social media-induced illness

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‘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 to cook a meal whilst presenting with exaggerated tics.

One German clinic was able to tie all its unusual patients, who were yelling the German words ‘Pommes’ (fries), ‘Bombe’ (bomb), ‘Heil Hitler’, ‘Du bist ha¨ßlich’ (you are ugly), and ‘Fliegende Haie’ (flying sharks) to a popular 22-year old German YouTuber named Jan Zimmermann and his YouTube channel ‘Gewitter im Kopf’ (‘Thunderstorm in the Brain’).

There’s no evidence that patients presenting to clinics around the world were pretending to exhibit tics, with many notably distressed when such uncontrollable symptoms started happening.

Whilst the phenomena are still being understood, German researchers have described this effect as a ‘mass psychogenic illness’ — possibly the first of its kind linked to social media use.

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.

An infamous case of mass psychogenic illness occurred in 1965, when a small group of British schoolgirls began to complain of feeling faint with some passing out — a cascading effect followed with a total of 85 girls at the school being rushed to hospital after they fainted, with no findings of an organic cause.

Mass psychogenic illness is considered more likely in times of high stress, likely in this case a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. German clinicians have called it a ‘culture bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasising the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality’.

British clinicians were more cautious in describing the phenomena, noting that ‘[s]tress may be unmasking a tic predisposition  in some, while in others compounding existing vulnerability to anxiety, for example, underlying neurodevelopmental or emotional difficulties to the point of becoming overwhelmed’.

Most patients who appear to be exhibiting rapid-onset tic behaviour recover from the condition after being informed that the cause is likely temporary.

For individuals living with Tourette Syndrome, recent reports of the phenomena have been seen as dismissive of a quite serious condition. ‘For Tourette Syndrome to be diagnosed, multiple motor and vocal tics need to be present for more than 12 months and it can be a hard slog for many families to get a diagnosis and get the help that they need for this very debilitating condition’, says Mandy Maysey from the Tourette Syndrome Association of Australia.  

‘Trivialising it into what I have heard people are calling ‘the Tiktok disease’ does a disservice to those trying to access the help they need.’

 

 

Jarryd Bartle is a freelance writer with a focus on cultural oddities.

Main image: Group of people holding up smart phones (Gian Cescon on Unsplash)

Topic tags: Jarryd Bartle, TikTok, Tourette, Social media

 

 

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Existing comments

Has the rapid rise of Tourette's amongst teenage girls been linked to The American singer Billie Eilish speaking openly about her struggle with the condition ??


Lara | 04 November 2021  

Don’t worry about a few kids. Social media illness (or cultural oddity) is when the recently relieved commander of a US nuclear submarine has a profile on LinkedIn. Democracy, where hast thou brain gone?


roy chen yee | 05 November 2021  

Mass hysteria, which is documented as far back as the Middle Ages, is always a worrying phenomenon. I am also not sure whether media personalities discussing their particular medical problems in public helps.


Edward Fido | 06 November 2021  

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