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Young People, Especially Young Women, Are Reporting Concerning Medical And Behavioral Changes Due To Social Media, And I Hope We’re Paying Attention

In part one of this week's newsletter: Why people are already dismissing a Wall Street Journal article about teens developing severe tics after watching numerous TikToks from influencers diagnosed with Tourette syndrome.

Posted on October 22, 2021, at 7:01 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

TikTok / @saythegay

I was really struck this week by this article from the Wall Street Journal, where writer Julie Jargon connects a rise in cases of teens reporting new physical and verbal tics to TikTok videos they’ve consumed.

According to Jargon’s reporting and previous research, this development involves mostly young women and is heavily influenced by how often they watched TikToks from influencers who said they had Tourette syndrome. The movements are sociogenic, meaning they are developed socially, but have profound and real neurological effects. Patients had physical jerks, such as neck twitches, or were compulsively and involuntarily repeating a word like “beans.”

Doctors who were cited in the article noted that many of the teen girls with these tics were also diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The thesis, it seems, is that the pandemic created a cascade of new challenges and coping mechanisms: The more young people were consuming these videos at home, the more the TikTok algorithm fed them to their feeds, and the more the videos were affecting their own psyches and behaviors.

Because we consume so much social media content, and there is scarce research done on its short- and long-term effects, perhaps I shouldn’t have been as shocked to hear about this report as I was. But I am fiercely sobered by it. It’s easier to neglect the sinister consequences of social media than to stare squarely into its eyes, like this WSJ report did. BREAKING: Turns out the poorly regulated, 24-hour content mill of being Extremely Online is really threatening to our mental health!

But it was also concerning to observe how the public received this story. Since it involved mostly young women and their social media use, I worried that people would mock or dismiss their ailments. Nothing brings dissenters online like reading about how young women are suffering because of the holding power of tech companies exploiting and profiting off their dependencies.

The response was mixed: Many people were as struck as I was by the report, and plenty predictably minimized it to Twitter punchlines and began casting a lot of doubt.

I reached out to Dr. Caroline Olvera, a neurologist and movement disorders fellow at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago cited in the WSJ piece. She’s one of the few medical professionals actively studying this case and other sociogenic changes due to social media.

Olvera gave me a lot more context to her own research and why the new cases are being diagnosed as “functional neurological disorder,” as opposed to classic Tourette syndrome. I won’t be able to parlay all of that in this newsletter (it’s profound, and very dense, and you can read more about that here), but the thing I want to emphasize is just how legitimizing her research is for these TikTok-induced tics. They may be atypical compared to how we’ve conceptualized or diagnosed disorders before, but the behavioral patterns and obstacles they present are very, very real.

“Historically, and currently, I believe that women’s medical complaints are sometimes minimized compared to men,” Olvera told me. “For example, the term ‘mass sociogenic/psychogenic illness’ was previously called ‘mass hysteria,’ referring to the uterus, and thus the underlying assumption may be that this is a phenomenon only affecting women who have gone ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical.’”

She also pointed out other examples of women’s complaints being minimized, such as how long it’s taken society to offer and normalize pain medication for childbirth.

“With more and more women becoming doctors, I think the perspectives are changing to take women and their complaints more seriously,” said Olvera. “We have certainly come a long way, but there is still a long way to go — as with society in general.”

She believes social media is the catalyst, if not the root, for worsening mental health issues. And it’d be wise if we took these young women, and other people reporting concerning behavioral changes, seriously. Olvera noticed she developed mild tics herself —“a lot of eye blinking” — after spending weeks watching similar TikToks for her field research.

“Social media use has previously been tied to worsening depression, anxiety, and eating disorders in those who may be more susceptible to these disorders,” she said. “In general, tics are very suggestible, so watching them in videos may provoke them to worsen.”

Olvera noted, however, that social media also has “the ability to act as almost a global support group for those with the same illness.” The visibility of Tourette syndrome on TikTok is ultimately great for those who are diagnosed, but she advises undiagnosed users to turn to medical professionals for counsel instead.

I imagine that noticing these kinds of changes in our bodies, and in our daily habits, is a very jarring experience, especially when there aren’t a lot of concrete answers. It’s easy to doubt ourselves or even dismiss stimuli like social media as being a cause. There are already a lot of prejudices against women, especially young women, especially young women of color, who raise their health concerns. Even more so if they don’t neatly fit into traditional conceptualizations of medical conditions. So it’d be wise and responsible if we paid attention now, instead of paying the price of these conditions worsening in the future.

“While my patients have been using Google for quite some time to research their illnesses, it may be that now patients are going to social media to gather information on their medical illness,” said Olvera. “As a medical profession, we are at the very beginning of understanding how social media may positively or negatively impact our patients and what type of information patients are obtaining online.”

Until next time,

Tanya

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.