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Is Social Media Causing a Mass Psychogenic Epidemic?

German doctors warn about a strange new outbreak of neurological cases.

Key points

  • Researchers warn that a new wave of Tourette's syndrome cases may be linked to social media content, according to a recent study.
  • Bizarre symptoms have appeared around the same time for no apparent physical reason in the past, but these were usually spread by word of mouth.
  • The new case appears to have spread virtually and highlights the power that social media has in shaping new behavior trends.

A new study by German researchers warns of a bizarre mass psychogenic illness that is apparently being spread by social media exclusively.

According to the research team led by Dr. Kirsten R Müller-Vahl at the Hannover University Medical School, an increasing number of videos have been recently released on social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram showing people who claim to be suffering from Tourette's syndrome — a childhood-onset chronic combined motor and vocal tic disorder. First identified by French neurologist Gilles de la Tourette in the 19th century, Tourette syndrome is chronically underdiagnosed but is still the most well-known childhood tic disorder.

This epidemic of new cases appeared to have started in 2019 after a German YouTube channel, “Gewitter im Kopf” (English: “Thunderstorm in the Brain”), was launched by a 22-year-old man called Jan Zimmermann. While Zimmermann does appear to be suffering from a mild form of Tourette's, the researchers examining his videos observed that many of the symptoms being displayed appear exaggerated, whether deliberately or not. As the researchers noted, "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. Tourette experts can easily tell the difference."

Three months after the first video was released, it attracted more than a million viewers making Zimmermann the top YouTube breakout creator in Germany in 2019. He has since created hundreds of other videos and started a channel with nearly three million subscribers. This was soon followed by Zimmermann's launch of a line of merchandise, including caps and shirts, as well as a new mobile app containing many of Zimmermann's most popular "vocal tics." Though several Tourette's advocacy groups initially supported the YouTube channel, they quickly distanced themselves as Zimmermann's marketing strategy became apparent.

The researchers also noticed a sharp rise in young patients referred to their specialized clinic for Tourette's cases associated with the University of Hannover. Over the past two years, many of these new cases presented symptoms almost identical to what Zimmerman displayed in his videos.

A Spreading Phenomenon

Not only were their facial tics and movements the same, but they were also vocalizing just like Zimmermann, even using the same bizarre phrases he did. Along with shouting words such as "Pommes” (English: fries), “Bombe” (English: bomb), “Heil Hitler,” “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks), the patients were acting up at school and home. They even gave their symptoms a name just as Zimmermann had in his videos (he called the symptoms "Gisela"). Perhaps more suspiciously, many of the new patients showing these symptoms also insisted their "symptoms" relieved them of the responsibility to carry out any task they did not want to do (though the symptoms vanished completed whenever they did things they enjoyed).

Despite these patients insisting that they had Tourette's syndrome, the researchers at the clinic quickly ruled out that diagnosis since the symptoms they were showing did not match what would be seen in genuine Tourette's cases. First of all, the onset of symptoms occurred abruptly rather than slowly over time, as with classic Tourette's cases. Then, there were almost no "simple" symptoms such as compulsive eye-blinking or repeated simple noises such as repeated throat-clearing. While these are the most common and typical Tourette's symptoms seen, hardly any of these "new" patients demonstrated them. Also, the sheer range of different symptoms, including involuntary movements, vocalizations, and noises, was far broader than in usual Tourette's cases. Also, in some new cases, symptoms disappeared completely after patients were told that the Tourette's diagnosis had been ruled out.

Mass Social-Media-Induced Illness

Based on what they were seeing, Dr. Muller-Vahl and her colleagues concluded that they were dealing with what they termed as mass social-media-induced illness (MSMI). While mass psychogenic illness has a long and varied history, including the "dancing manias" occurring in mainland Europe during the 13th and 17th centuries, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic in 1962, and the 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic, among many others, they all involved "index cases" during which the illness first appeared which was then spread primarily by word-of-mouth. As a result, these epidemics were largely localized to specific geographical regions with almost no spread beyond that.

As it happens, there was a bizarre case in LeRoy, New York, back in 2012 when 19 high school students suddenly began displaying "tic-like behavior" resembling Tourette's syndrome, at least superficially. New cases broke out due to the widespread media speculation about the causes of this outbreak though it died down once doctors concluded that it was a case of mass psychogenic illness. However, with what Muller-Vahl and her team described in their own research, the cause appeared to be completely virtual, with all cases occurring in people who had seen or heard of the Zimmermann videos.

Not only does this virtual link mean that this new epidemic isn't limited to specific geographical areas, but just about anyone who has seen or heard about the YouTube channel can be potentially affected. Meanwhile, similar channels appear on YouTube and TikTok, leading to new "virtual index" cases with some interesting differences. For example, while almost all German cases seem to follow Jan Zimmermann's example, new cases being reported in Canada seem to be largely influenced by the videos of English-speaking 20-year-old female Evie Meg (better known under her TikTok name “thistrippyhippie”) who is displaying her own Tourette's-like symptoms.

Admittedly, there is nothing new about dangerous fads being spread by social media, including such well-known fads as the "ice bucket challenge" and the "milk crate challenge," which has led to numerous injuries worldwide. Still, the rising number of Tourette's cases, apparently driven solely by social media, is alarming considering that so many young people displaying these symptoms seem to be diagnosing themselves. International groups are already warning Tourette's specialists worldwide to watch these new cases, including a new website by the University of Calgary and other online resources.

If anything, the current COVID-19 pandemic is imposing more stress than ever before with lockdowns, worry about social isolation, and health fears. Muller-Vahl and her colleagues suggest that this kind of stress may encourage more people than ever to be embracing Tourette's and other well-publicized conditions as a way of seeking out attention.

For now, this particular Tourette epidemic seems to be under control though it can still provide a warning about how powerful social media can be. Certainly, there is nothing new about "TikTok diagnoses," and many young people may well decide that their own personal quirks reflect what people they see online are going through. Not only does this kind of diagnosis help them feel as if they "belonged" to some special online club, but it can be a source of a new identity as well.

As for what the next " big fad" will be and the potential dangers that can come from it, only time can tell.

References

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,

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