A team of psychiatrists has reported what they’re calling “the first outbreak of a new type of mass sociogenic illness” that is spread by social media alone.
Published in the journal Brain, the team reports that they have seen a “remarkably high number” of young patients who had been referred to their specialist Tourettes clinic in Hannover, all displaying “nearly identical” movements and vocalizations. The patients not only had similar movements but also said a lot of the same words as each other when experiencing a “tic”, regardless of the language they were speaking it in.
Words included “fries”, “bomb”, “flying sharks”, and, most concerningly, “Heil Hitler”.
Another strange aspect to the tics, and not seen usually in Tourette’s patients, was that their vocalizations shifted pitch whenever they had a “vocal tic”, their voice becoming much lower than usual.
Though all the patients had been diagnosed with the childhood-onset chronic combined motor and vocal tic disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, before being referred to the clinic, the team noted that the tics were unusual, and unknown in Tourettes syndrome. However, they had seen the tics before: on the YouTube channel “Gewitter im Kopf” (“Thunderstorm in the Brain”).
The channel, presented by Jan Zimmermann, documents life with Tourettes syndrome.
“Judging from the videos, he indeed suffers from a mild form of Tourette syndrome,” the team write in their paper. “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.”
“For the majority of the shown symptoms, there are obviously strong situational contexts with exclamations of long sentences with insults, swear words, and obscenities that are in this form unknown in Tourette syndrome.”
The channel gained one million subscribers when it launched in 2019, and not long afterwards the team was referred their first patient exhibiting similar symptoms. The team believes that, though some of the patients did have some form of mild Tourettes, the slew of new patients are likely suffering from a “mass psychogenic illness”. The tics the other patients have, including the unusually similar use of words, and “complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen” are similar to what the presenter has done, but not usual in Tourettes.
This is not unheard of, as cases of a Tourettes-like syndrome spread amongst teenagers in a high school in upstate New York in 2011. However, what makes this unique is that the team believe that the psychogenic illness has spread through social media alone, describing it as a mass social media-induced illness.
“A large number of young people across different countries are affected, with considerable impact on health care systems and society as a whole, since spread via social media is no longer restricted to specific locations such as local communities or school environments spread via social media is no longer restricted to specific locations such as schools or towns,” the authors write.
The team believe that the sudden rise in number of cases can be explained by the increases in stress placed on the young over the last few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the isolation the pandemic has brought, putting more teenagers online where they have stumbled across Zimmermann’s popular videos.