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Psychogenic illnesses: is social media making us sick?

Katie Oliver
TikTok Tics
tik tok
TikTok and social media   Image Supplied by: Plann

The rapid increase in tic disorders recently has left doctors questioning whether TikTok is causing mass psychogenic illnesses.

Sociologist Dr Robert Bartholomew, an honorary senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, has a PhD in the study of mass psychogenic illnesses. He believes it could be happening to thousands of young girls in New Zealand. 

Mass Psychogenic Illness or MPI, is when a group of people begin developing similar signs and symptoms of sickness from one another with no underlying medical explanation. The symptoms these people experience are just as real as any other condition. The difference is, they're physiologically healthy.

Since the start of the pandemic, neurologists across the globe have seen a surge in patients - particularly teenage girls - displaying symptoms akin to Tourette Syndrome. 

These ‘TikTok Tics’ are distinct from Tourette Syndrome, although they share many similar characteristics. 

The outbreak of ‘TikTok Tics’ is seen primarily in young women. The onset has been explosive, rather than gradual. The motor tics, which are involuntary muscle contractions, rapidly progress into verbal tics.

This is unlike Tourette Syndrome, which typically starts in childhood, between the ages of four and six. It tends to present itself in a ‘waxing and waning’ fashion and primarily affects young boys. 

Bartholomew believes the influx of Tourette’s content on TikTok over the past three years is the reason so many young women started developing tic-like behaviour. He says thousands of young girls began watching these videos, and shortly after would be visiting neurologists to get checked. 

"Doctors initially assumed that these girls had Tourettes. The neurologists knew immediately that it wasn’t Tourettes…because there’s no such thing as sudden onset Tourettes in teenage girls, it just doesn’t happen.”

Bartholomew says TikTok tics are a psychological issue, rather than physiological. He explains the tics come from an overstimulation of the nervous system. 

There are two forms of psychogenic illness. The first type is the opposite of the placebo effect; where if you’re given a sugar pill and told you will feel better, then suddenly you start feeling better. 

“The nocebo effect is the opposite - you take a pill and you’ve been told it’ll make you feel worse then often, you will feel worse.”

The second type comes from extreme, prolonged stress. Common symptoms include shaking, twitching and uncontrollable laughing. These can take months to subside even after the stress has reduced. 

This is how Bartholomew believes psychogenic illnesses work. He claims psychogenic illnesses illustrate the power of the mind, expectation and framing. 

During the Covid lockdowns, young girls were fearful. There was free-flowing anxiety about the potential to lose family members to the pandemic. 

At a crucial stage in their development, young people weren’t able to socialise in person. So, they moved online and began consuming content on TikTok.

‘Tourette TikTok’ began garnering billions of views - people would report having the condition and other disorders and document it online. This is what triggered the rise in tic-like behaviour in young girls. 

Bartholomew wants to emphasize ‘TikTok Tics’ are no hoax. These young women are suffering and he says there’s reason to believe TikTok is facilitating the spread.

A Tauranga General Practitioner, who elected not to be named, says the 2021 archives of Diseases in Childhood noted an increase in adolescent girls with tic-like disorders. She says due to the nature of Tourette Syndrome, it is likely these cases are just 'tic-like', rather than genuine cases of Tourette Syndrome. 

Bartholomew says TikTok tics can be subsided with a reduction of stress over time. 

He says the problem is, they could be just the tip of the iceberg.