Is Social Media Causing a New Mass Sociogenic Illness?

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A team of psychiatrists have reported the first outbreak of a new mass sociogenic illness, spread solely via social media.

In 2019, a 22-year-old German by the name of Jan Zimmermann started a YouTube channel called ‘Gewitter im Kopf’ (English: “Thunderstorm in the Brain”). He hoped to document his life with Tourette syndrome. The young man soon became a social media sensation, reaching 1 million subscribers in less than 3 months. Zimmermann’s symptoms often involve him saying phrases like ‘Pommes’ (fries), ‘Bombe’ (bomb), ‘Heil Hitler’, ‘Du bist häßlich’ (you are ugly), and ‘Fliegende Haie’ (flying sharks). Moreover, some videos also depict strange behaviours such as throwing dishes and pens or crushing eggs in the kitchen. However, soon after his videos began circulating on social media, a specialized Tourette’s clinic in Hannover started receiving several young patients with similar tic-like behaviours. Experts believe the tics are not Tourette’s but instead, a new type of mass sociogenic illness.

Judging from the videos, he indeed suffers from a mild form of Tourette syndrome. On this YouTube channel, however, he shows a countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours that he claims are tics, but are clearly functional in nature.

study authors

Mass sociogenic illness, also known as mass psychogenic illness, is usually triggered by emotional distress. People often present with symptoms with no identifiable cause. These symptoms then spread via audio, visual, or physical communication. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) does not include the disease, it shares a resemblance to the conversion disorder present in the manual. However, as per the study published in the journal Brain, this is the first time the illness has been shown to spread via social media alone. Therefore, the study authors propose the name ‘mass social media-induced illness’ (MSMI).

What is Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a chronic disorder comprising repetitive or jerky movements and unwanted sounds (tics). According to Dr. Kirsten Müller-Vah at Tourette’s clinic in Hannover, the syndrome usually starts around 6 years of age. Moreover, classic tics are usually short and abrupt; often accompanied by eye movements or clearing of the throat.

However, the young patients that showed up to the clinic demonstrated the opposite of these. Along with similar movements, their tics also involved the same words as Zimmermann. Moreover, all of them reported seeing his videos. But Germany is not the only place reporting such cases. Over the past few months, similar cases have come up in Canada, France, Denmark, US, and the UK.

According to study authors, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues among the younger population. Their existing anxiety, combined with isolation, may have triggered the behaviour. Moreover, social media platforms such as tik-tok and YouTube have made it easier for these outbreaks to spread wider.  

I think that being in a cloistered lockdown environment, and spending more time on sites such as YouTube and TikTok, have likely intensified the effects of these sites on young people.

Robert Bartholomew, sociologist investigation mass sociogenic illness

Reference:

Kirsten R Müller-Vahl, Anna Pisarenko, Ewgeni Jakubovski, Carolin Fremer, Stop that! It’s not Tourette’s but a new type of mass sociogenic illness, Brain, 2021;, awab316, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab316

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