Besides twitching teens, what else is social media producing? 

Written by Genspect parent Lynn Chadwick.

As previously reported by Genspect, clinicians are seeing a sharp increase in young patients with previously rare psychological conditions.  The common thread seems to be social media. 

In a new article in The Atlantic, The Twitching Generation: Around the world, doctors have noticed teenage patients reporting the sudden onset of tics. Is this the first illness spread by social media? Helen Lewis reports:

“Three years ago, the psychiatrist Kirsten Müller-Vahl began to notice something unusual about the newest patients at her clinic in Hannover, Germany.  A typical Tourette’s patient is a boy who develops slow, mild motor tics—blinking or grimacing—at about age 5 to 7, followed later by simple vocalizations such as coughing.  Only about one in 10 patients progress to the disorder’s most famous symptom—coprolalia, which involves shouting obscene or socially unacceptable words.  Even then, most patients utter only half a dozen swear words, on repeat. 

“But these new patients were different.  They were older, for a start—teenagers—and about half of them were girls.  Their tics had arrived suddenly, explosively, and were extreme; some were shouting more than 100 different obscenities.  This last symptom in particular struck Müller-Vahl as odd. ‘Even in extremely severely affected [Tourette’s] patients, they try to hide their coprolalia,’ she told me.  The teenagers she was now seeing did not.  She had the impression, she said, that ‘they want to demonstrate that they suffer from these symptoms.’  Even more strangely, many of her new patients were prone to involuntary outbursts of exactly the same phrase: Du bist hässlich.”

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article on the same topic, the number of pediatric patients at John Hopkins University Tourette’s Center in Baltimore with acute onset tic-like behaviors rose dramatically after the pandemic, from a baseline of 2 to 3 percent to a new high of 10 to 20 percent.  Texas Children’s hospital reported seeing approximately 60 teenagers with sudden tics between March 2020 and the autumn of 2021, compared with just one or two a year before that. 

What’s new in this cohort are bizarre symptoms that appear in a widespread fashion, seemingly mimicking those seen in popular TikTok videos.  This was described at a recent conference, as described in The Atlantic article:

“Tammy Hedderly, a neurologist at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital, sometimes calls her new-style tic patients “Evies.”  These girls “present thumping their chest, shouting beans, and falling to their knees,” she told the virtual conference.  The nickname comes from a 21-year-old British influencer named Evie Meg Field, also known as @thistrippyhippie, who has 14.2 million followers on TikTok and nearly 800,000 on Instagram.  Field has published a book called My Nonidentical Twin: What I’d Like You to Know About Living With Tourette’s.

Lewis continues:

The unexpectedly wide appeal of these videos is surely bound up with transgression and the old-fashioned desire to rubberneck, mixed up with a backlash against “normies”—the neurotypical—and a proud assertion of the right to be different.  The essence of coprolalia is violating social conventions, and watching those with Tourette’s shout and swear is just as compelling as watching and edgy comedian say the allegedly unsayable. 

“The teenagers who watch the #tourette’s videos also find community, acceptance, sympathy, and validation.  Less wholesomely, they find proof that the more eye-catching, disruptive, or rude the creator’s tics are, the more viral they go.

“Why should this particular set of symptoms arrive at this particular moment?  Over Zoom, Robert Bartholomew told me that the pandemic-and the lockdown and homeschooling measures used to contain it had created a ‘perfect storm’ for and illness spread through social media.  Teenagers were isolated from their friends, stuck at home with their families, spending hours alone with their screens, with their usual routines knocked out. 

“One hypothesis is that some of us are ‘tic prone,’ but display tics only when triggered by stress or another illness. This fits with existing research showing that many members of Generation Z are anxious, isolated, and depressed, with body-image troubles worsened by the perfect bodies and aspirational lives they see on TikTok and Instagram.  They are part of a grand social experiment, the first cohort to grow up with the internet on smartphones, the first generation whose entire lives have been shaped by the demands of social-media algorithms.  Tics and twitches may be their unconscious method of saying: I want out.”

Now, an investigation is being launched into the harms of these platforms, led by a coalition of eight American state attorneys general.  In a recent statement, prosecutors said:

“Today, attorneys general across the nation joined an investigation into TikTok for providing and promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while use is associated with physical and mental health harms.  The investigation will look into the harms such usage causes to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms.  The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.”

Other diagnosis which are rising precipitously and appear to be connected to social media use include multiple personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, “bigorexia” as reported by the New York Times, and gender dysphoria, as reported by Genspect

Image credit: mentatdgt, Pexels

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