by Katherine Dee
Friday, 27
August 2021
Spotted
11:34

A mysterious spike in Tourette’s leads back to YouTube star

Psychiatric disorders can spread via 'social contagion'
by Katherine Dee
YouTuber Jay Zimmerman. Credit: YouTube

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”.

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:

People label their sadness as depression and their nervousness as anxiety when the problems that they’re facing often don’t reflect those psychological problems. If healthy people are convinced that they’re depressed, they ultimately identify with the glamorised social media posts, aggravating the phenomenon even more.
- Jinan Jennifer Jadayal

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.

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Kate Lane
Kate Lane
11 months ago

This is an important point well made. I’ve suffered severe depression for 4 decades, now mostly moderate thanks to ECT and a bucket of daily medication. As I had a few hypomanic spells in late 20s, I was eventually diagnosed as Bipolar II, a few years before Stephen Fry et al made it trendy. I’ve always been open about my condition; it explains why I haven’t worked for 25 years and did not have children. It has robbed me of anything like a “normal” life, so I feel the need to explain that I am not simply lazy. But in the last decade or so, I have felt embarrassed to mention it, reluctant to be seen as yet another jumper onto the bandwagon. When celebrities play Mental Health Top Trumps, even if they have the best of intentions, it makes the likes of me feel even more of a failure. Look at them, they have the same condition, yet they manage to act, write books, paint, earn vast amounts of money. They wax lyrical about their mania, how it makes them so creative, how they would rather avoid medication in case it robbed them of that high. Well, that’s lovely for them, but I struggle to get out of bed every morning, even with medication. With mood stabilisers, the depression is not utterly crippling, and the hypomania has lost its enjoyable side and morphed into agitation and anger, a so-called mixed state. All the downside, none of the up.
It incenses me that inevitable, unavoidable, everyday vicissitudes are now described as depression and anxiety. Those are abnormal, chronic, and utterly debilitating states. People who have actually suffered them would never confuse them with normal emotions. It is like comparing a water pistol with a shot gun.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Kate Lane

I feel for you Kate-i just have the much milder dysthymia, and that makes life hard enough. i would not be here if i had your much much more intense type. Un fortunately we live in primitive times in terms of average human consciousness – I think it has slipped backwards over the past few decades. The old concept of ‘common sense ‘ ie able to sort out truth from fiction has dwindled markedly esp amongst the young. Gormless adults are bringing up gormless kids – and the genuinely smart kids (not IQ wise) are depressed at all the idiocy around them ( eg my son -lots of conversations about non-being). The only thing it seems to do is to view the slow train crash with interested semi-detachment whilst looking forwards to a better re-incarnation. Hang in there !

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Perhaps the only thing to do

Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell
11 months ago
Reply to  Kate Lane

I’m sorry to hear about your problems, but the truth is that this has been going on for years. A friend of mine coined the phrase ‘the medicalisation of dissatisfaction’ a few years ago. I think that the truth of the matter is that too many people make too much money out of redefining unhappiness as illness and then ‘treating’ it. I used to think that things would turn full circle, but it shows little sign of happening. In the meantime, the impression grows that mental illness is relatively trivial and something to be proud of.
In reality, serious mental illness is extremely debilitating and carries a high mortality, both from suicide and associated physical diseases. It is partly because mental illness is seen by the NHS as less important that service provision is so sparse.

Andrew D
Andrew D
11 months ago

Is the whole trans thing a manifestation of the same phenomenon?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Good and very timely point-I think you are correct…what a loony tunes world we are becoming. i cant help remembering that old adage ‘get over yourself and get on’. I cant help but think its time to call out all these naive unhealthy ego trips…And what is it about adolescent girls these days – are they particularly prone to hysteria ? Lots more research (useful) required..

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago

What do we want?
A cure for Tourettes!
When do we want it?
C*nt!

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
11 months ago

Well before social media anorexia would spread like wild fire among teenage girls in a shared environment. In my girls’ only school (Exeter) it started with 1 case and within two months there were 18 of us. This mimetic drive is fuelling the acceleration of the numbers of girls seeking to transition – as if not more destructive of their physical let alone mental health.

D Ward
D Ward
11 months ago

Interesting. I had a friend when i was younger who had a stutter. And i “caught” the stutter. I didn’t mean to, i didn’t want to, but I did. I had to consciously pull myself back from it – but it was hard. To this day, I could go back to it, if pushed.

Last edited 11 months ago by D Ward
J Hop
J Hop
11 months ago
Reply to  D Ward

This is so interesting. I had a friend when I was a kid who had a sinus malformity and often breathed with a wheeze. When I played with her I came home with a wheeze myself. I remember my mother telling me to knock it off as she thought I was mocking her, but really, I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. I was about 4 or 5.

mike otter
mike otter
11 months ago

Interesting read, the mimics of the youtube Performing Tourettes Man are behaving like Latahs – a Malay/Indonesian defined syndrome of imitation, exaggerated behaviours and repetitive tics. Maybe its not coincidence that the Plymouth incel shooter was social media focused (infected?) and carried out the Malay/Indonesian defined idea of “Runing Amok”. Such contagion predates modern media and is a part of “social” existence IMO. Religious sects based on self mortification, cults like Jim Jones & Co, and even political movements from the Soviets to the Greens can be seen as social contagion. This is where an irrational belief which harms you (and others) propagates rapidly into a cohesive group capable of great harm. The same mechanism may transfer humor – like PTM above, or culture or philosophy etc so not all social contagion is malign.

Last edited 11 months ago by mike otter
Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
11 months ago

A mysterious spike in Tourette’s leads back to YouTube star
Wouldn’t a social media star suffering Tourette’s be expected to be on Tick-tok?

Last edited 11 months ago by Paddy Taylor
J Hop
J Hop
11 months ago

Can we start talking about how trans fits into this category as well? Or is that still off limits?

memiller22
memiller22
11 months ago

Anyone acquainted with the history of psychiatry preFreud will find rich and compelling examples where social contagion seems to be the driving force behind the development of hysteria

memiller22
memiller22
11 months ago
Reply to  memiller22

And other similar disorders. More recently the work of Ian Hacking throws light on the phenomenon of multiple personality disorder. In spite of the fact that suggestion and suggestibility seem to be aspects of life that we all share , who is going to admit that the degree to which we think for ourselves might be so undermined by the force of others upon us? However just like the placebo effect , it is something that is very hard to demonstrate . I am certain that social media allows the expression of this force to proliferate in all sorts of ways – but it is a puzzling phenomena with a history stretching back to Aristotle.

chhd lsscc
chhd lsscc
10 months ago

Most dangerous profession: therapist. Never go to one and never advise anyone to see one. You will come out worse off, you will hate your parents, and your spouse. You will hate your boss (even more), will seriously consider divorce and or suicide. They will offer you nothing you could not have gotten free from any of your close friends. Because these are people whose whole profession is based on you NOT getting better. Most (90%) of so called mental illness is not curable in way shape or form, so just deal with it. Your wallet will feel a lot better.