Psychiatric disorders can spread via 'social contagion'
A study published this week reported the first outbreak of “a new type of mass sociogenic illness… spread solely via social media.” The authors coined a new term to describe the phenomena: “mass social-media induced illness”.
Research began when a high number of young patients were referred to specialised Tourette’s clinic, having already proven resistant to traditional medical treatments like anti-psychotic drugs. But when it was discovered that the patients presented symptoms identical to those of Tourettes sufferer Jan Zimmerman, a popular German YouTuber, the researchers realised the problem: the patients did not actually suffer from Tourette’s, but were mimicking Zimmerman’s vocalised tics that they saw on his videos. Shortly thereafter, “a rapid and complete remission occurred after exclusion of the diagnosis of Tourette syndrome”.
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The idea of a “mass social media-induced illness,” or even just a “social contagion,” less specific to mental illness, is, to say the least, controversial. There’s a justified fear that talk of “social contagion” is just a stone’s throw away from discrediting people who want to talk about their experiences. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that social contagions borne from the online sphere are well-documented phenomena — and perhaps as old as the Internet itself.
The most famous example was the rise of pro-anorexia communities, spawned on anonymous internet forums, which were often home to “wannarexics” (wannabe anorexics). While the sites were founded to allow for people with already-established eating disorders to discuss their experiences, they started to attract young people without the disease wishing to join the community.
Some of these newcomers would go on to develop disordered eating habits themselves, even if only temporarily. As these communities migrated to more user-friendly platforms like Tumblr, as opposed to forums with lengthy sign-up processes, ‘wannarexia’ became more common.
In the late 2010s, the adolescent relationship with depression and self-harm also came under the microscope. In one study from the International School in Lebanon, a researcher described our changing understanding of mental illness in the context of social networking:
How do we both create online spaces for people who are legitimately suffering and in need of the support of people experiencing the same things, without accidentally opening a Pandora’s box of mimesis? It’s a delicate dance, and one that will be difficult to learn without acknowledging a couple of things first.
Accepting that social contagion is real does not have to discredit anyone, but can help us distinguish between mental illnesses that are genuinely still stigmatised and those that are normalised and glamorised in online communities.