Social Media May Lead to Teenagers Displaying Signs of Rare Mental Disorders

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New article finds that teenage girls are vulnerable to TikTok content and begin to identity with and romanticize rare mental disorders


In a recent article, researchers discussed a disturbing trend among teenage girls on social media, especially on platforms like TikTok. They found that a sudden increase in cases of rare psychiatric disorders, such as Tourette’s, eating disorders, autism, and dissociative identity disorder (DID), is linked to what they call “psychosomatic social contagion.”

The study, led by John D. Haltigan, Tamara M. Pringsheim, and Gayathiri Rajkumar, finds that teenage girls are adopting these rare disorders as a way to express extreme negative emotions. They find a sense of community and uniqueness by identifying with and glamorizing these disorders—a phenomenon termed “psychosomatic social contagion.”

The researchers note that TikTok, with its short-form videos, has a powerful impact on teenagers. Unlike earlier social media platforms, TikTok has become the most widely used among children and teens. The study points out that the content on TikTok is creating what they call a “sick-role subculture,” where teenagers adopt the symptoms of rare disorders they see in online content. This involves young girls watching videos by content creators who claim to have these disorders. The girls then suddenly display similar symptoms.

The researchers highlight a case where a 14-year-old girl began identifying with creators on TikTok and believed she had multiple diagnoses, including ADHD, depression, autism, mysophobia (fear of dirt and germs), and agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house).

The researchers write that social media has created an online environment where mental health symptoms are viewed more as consumer identities or character traits than as concerns requiring professional attention. Individuals self-diagnose after viewing online content, incorporating the “illness” into their online identity and receiving positive feedback from the community that romanticizes it.

Tourette Vs FTLB:

In the US, UK, Germany, Canada, and Australia, there’s been a rise in behaviors similar to tics, known as functional tic-like behaviors (FTLB), especially before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the same time there was increased social media content about Tourette syndrome and tics. FTLBs are different from classic Tourette syndrome (TS).

In TS, motor tics typically come before verbal tics, and throat clearing is a common vocal tic. Less than 15% of people with TS develop complex vocalizations. FTLBs, on the other hand, are more common in adolescent females, a key user group on TikTok. Those with FTLBs are often diagnosed with anxiety and depression, unlike TS, which is linked with conditions like ADHD and OCD. Some individuals, after watching popular videos on Tourette’s syndrome, have started sharing similar tics.

Dissociative Identity Disorder:

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a rare psychiatric diagnosis, has become surprisingly prevalent on social media, particularly among youth. For teenagers, adopting such diagnoses seems to be a way to claim uniqueness and experiment with different identities.

The online culture around DID or multiple personality disorder (MPD) has been well-documented. Hashtags like #DID, #borderlinepersonalitydisorder, and #bipolardisorder get millions of views, and popular creators share videos of them ‘switching alters’ (changing identities). Both the public and clinical professionals notice that this online culture around DID and self-diagnosed mental illnesses often seems romanticized, glamourized, and sexualized, or may even be exaggerated. This is troubling because it is often related to severe trauma in real life.

This could be a reason why many users claim to have ‘rare’ disorders like DID, even though the actual prevalence is low. It’s noted that claims of DID without clinical diagnosis can negatively affect those in the plurals community who are clinically diagnosed and seeking therapy.

Why Some Are More Vulnerable?

Many people on social media see content related to mental health, but most of them don’t adopt mental health issues or seek professional help. Online communities can have positive effects, helping people cope with stress, build relationships, and feel a sense of belonging. However, some individuals seem more at risk of developing mental health issues through social media.

The diathesis-stress model suggests that people with certain vulnerabilities (biological, social, psychological) may be more affected by negative experiences. While social media itself isn’t always stressful, dealing with social relationships online, especially through algorithm-driven platforms, could create conditions that increase the risk of mental health issues for individuals who are vulnerable to personality and behavioral problems, especially those related to emotion regulation and negative emotions.

Online communities have hashtags and content sharing. This leads to positive reinforcement for people’s self-claimed identities. Expressing emotions and thoughts about self-diagnosed mental health in such an environment can strengthen the connection to these identities. Most importantly, it can influence and change future behaviors. In simple terms, the way people regulate their emotions related to self-identity is more and more influenced by external factors on social media rather than internally within themselves.

In conclusion, the study raises questions about the perception of mental illness in the context of social media. It suggests that online platforms are contributing to the spread of psychiatric diagnoses among teenagers, not necessarily based on actual clinical criteria but as a way to gain positive reinforcement and resonance within online communities. This phenomenon challenges the traditional notions of stigma around mental health and the efforts to raise awareness and normalize these conditions.

This article was originally written by Peter Simons for Mad in America and can be read here. This is an AI generated version, edited for a South Asian readership.


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