WSJ series: Increased mental health problems linked to social media influence, experts say

Article written by Genspect parent Lynn Chadwick.

The negative impacts of social media on young people have been a topic of conversation for some time, as social media use among children and teens has risen, particularly post-Covid as reported by Dr. Erica Anderson last week in the San Francisco Examiner.  A new series of articles by Julie Jargon in the Wall Street Journal outlines particularly concerning trends among teens. 

In her article on how girls are developing tics after watching TikTok videos, Jargon notes:

“Teenage girls across the globe have been showing up at doctor’s offices with tics – physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts – since the start of the pandemic. 

“Movement-disorder doctors were stumped at first.  Girls with tics are rare, and these teens had an unusually high number of them, which had developed suddenly.  After months of studying the patients and consulting with one another, experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common:  TikTok. 

“According to a spate of recent medical journal articles, doctors say the girls had been watching videos of TikTok influencers who said they had Tourette Syndrome, a nervous-system disorder that causes people to make repetitive, involuntary movements or sounds.”

The hashtag #tourettes now brings up 4.8 billion videos on TikTok, and some teens appear to be binge-watching, leading to an epidemic of young viewers experiencing uncontrollable tics.  Jargon writes:

“Since March 2020, Texas Children’s Hospital has reported seeing approximately 60 teens with such tics, whereas doctors there saw one or two cases a year before the pandemic.  At the Johns Hopkins University Tourettes’s Center, 10% to 20% of pediatric patients have described acute-onset tic-like behaviors, up from 2% to 3% a year before the pandemic, according to Joseph McGuire, ad associate professor in the university’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.  Between March and June this year, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said it saw 20 patients with these tics, up for 10 the full year before.”

Eating disorders are also on the rise, particularly among teen boys. According to this article, social media appears to have a role in this as well.  As boys are being exposed to more body-image related content, they are catching up with girls in alarming numbers. Jargon reports:

“A 2019 study of seventh and eighth graders in Australia found that in the prior 12 months, 45% of boys had engaged in risky ways to control weight, such as skipping meals and exercising compulsively, and demonstrated unhealthy attitudes toward food and body image.   Nearly 52% of girls in the study had engaged in disordered eating behaviors. The study found the behavior among both boys and girls to be significantly associated with having social-media accounts, and particularly with having three or more accounts.

Michaela Voss, medical director of the eating-disorders center at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO, stated:

“Access to social media also has caused eating disorders to take longer to diagnose and treat, because teens can easily find information on how to fool their parents and doctors.  Patients have used social media to learn how to hide food and to vomit without being noticed.”

Other mental health disorders that are typically rare are also increasingly being seen in the pediatric population, including borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder.  Jargon outlines in her next article the serious consequences that are arising:

“When teens watch TikTok videos and decide they have a mental-health affliction – even if they’re really only suffering from adolescence – it can pose a treatment challenge and cause frayed family relationships.”

Bre-Ann Slay, a clinical psychologist in Kansas Cit, MO, says that videos may destigmatize mental illness, but can lead to greater problems.  This past summer at an inpatient psychiatric facility, Dr. Slay began seeing several patients a week who were self diagnosing.  When they mentioned they were learning about the conditions on TikTok, Dr. Slay created a TikTok account to understand what they were watching. 

“What shocked me the most was how many videos there were about multiple-personality disorder because of how rare it is,” she said. 

Doctors around the country are seeing more and more teens with self-diagnosed mental disorders derived from watching TikTok. 

“‘We have to convince these kids to release their self-diagnoses but when they leave us they go right back into that TikTok community which reinforces their beliefs,’ said Don Grant, executive director of outpatient services for Newport Healthcare’s teen treatment center in Santa Monica, Calif.  He hasn’t kept a tally of the teens who use TikTok to self-diagnose, but he says it’s significant.”

“Dr Grant, who chairs a committee of the American Psychological Association that develops guidance for psychologists and the public on device and social-media use, explained that being saturated with negative content can alter the brain’s chemistry, displacing feel-good neurotransmitters with stress hormones.”

Does all this social media influence also apply to gender confusion among teens?  There is good evidence to believe so.  According to this article, teens may experience pressure on social media platforms, where they believe that they have to choose a gender identity.  Jargon explains:

“There has been debate in academia and the medical community over the role that social media has played in the apparent increase in teenage discussion and exploration of gender identity.”

“’Everything your child does is going to be influenced by the internet, whether it’s how they dress, the music they listen to, how they feel about their body or what they consider to be attractive or healthy,’” says Dr. Crystal Cole, medical director of the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio.”

Dr Lisa Littman, who has published studies exploring the phenomenon of ROGD and more recently on detransitioned young people, said that the when kids feel pressured to label themselves, it can actually cause them to become more dysphoric. 

The links between severe and disturbing mental health problems and social media are becoming increasingly clear.  Doctors are recommending cognitive behavioral therapy and getting kids off social media. It would appear that an ounce of prevention would be better than a pound of cure. Taking a social media break could be a first line of defense for parents who are concerned for their kid’s mental health.

As one teen boy who was treated for an eating disorder said, “The best part of treatment was being away from my phone.”

Image credit: John Wisniewski, Flikr

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