Two years into the pandemic, most of us are familiar with the grim reality of isolation. Whether it be aimlessly scrolling through social media for hours or sitting on Zoom for an entire school or workday, it’s easy to think we’ve seen it all when it comes to quarantine. However, recent developments hint that this virtual transition poses a new challenge to mental health.
This November, researchers published a study concerned with a spike in cases of Tourette syndrome (TS), specifically in female teenagers across the United States. In recent years, there has been a suspicious uptake in patients reporting to hospitals with various tics, with hospitals like Texas Children’s gaining 60 patients a year in contrast to its previous two patients a year. Doctors report that these new cases of tics are uniquely rapid-onset and severe, pointing to some acute cause.
Because of the widespread stress brought about these past few years, doctors weren’t immediately concerned with finding a unique catalyst for the outbreak, associating it with other quarantine-related increases in mental illnesses, but one factor distinguished these cases specifically: TikTok.
Researchers were first led to this potential relationship because of the broad similarities in tic cases across the country. They observe that tics usually manifest in ways very unique to each person, but this specific outbreak manifests uniformly everywhere, pointing to some internet-related cause. In addition, the overwhelming majority of patients being teenage girls affected by the outbreak hinted that social media played a role. The timelines lined up, as patient numbers ramped up around March 2020— the start of quarantine and the dramatic rise of TikTok usage.
Doctors specifically tied this spike with a recent trend in TS-related content on the platform. Current studies find that content tagged with #tourettes has amassed over 5 billion views total. Because this increase in content occurred in tandem with widespread levels of stress in teenage populations, many believe this tic-related content acted as a model by which users’ brains respond to stress. Therefore, these cases may not technically be Tourette's, but rather an acute stress response shared by social media users and influenced by the content they see.
However, in spite of all these conclusions, a substantial amount of professionals are hesitant towards the correlation. Referencing the debate between causation and correlation, some critique the small sample size of patients experiencing these rapid-onset tics. They claim that although the spike in cases is notable, associating it with a single source so quickly is irresponsible. More importantly, they are quick to highlight the dangers of viewing tics as being perpetuated by young people online. It seems to rely on the presumption that tics are “attention-seeking.”
In general, many believe the fears behind ‘TikTok Tourette’s,’ though valid, result from a quick jump to conclusions. They claim that TikTok might still play a role, but certainly not the only role. The spike in tics most likely resulted from a plethora of causes such as stress and isolation. Though the correlation itself may not be as severe as originally thought, it reignites a continuing debate surrounding social media and its mental health effects.
Since its conception, youth social media use has been correlated with various mental illnesses such as depression. Even further, new developments in psychology that allow researchers to spot mental illness through one’s social media presence display growing ties between our mental states and our online interactions. The problem isn’t apocalyptic, but it is inevitable for social media users and young adults especially.
Meanwhile, social media trends that embrace mental health awareness and validation both exacerbate the internet’s connection to mental illness and create concerns in doctors. For instance, a proposed issue with the ‘TikTok Tourette’s’ problem is the possible misinformation individual creators may spread. Because our day-to-day life (including mental wellness) is now so intertwined with the virtual world, many often think the internet can provide solutions. For many reasons, therapy and other mental health resources can be difficult to come by, especially for young people. The accessibility of social media as well as the sense of unity it provides to those struggling with mental health fool many into thinking it has all the answers, but doctors emphasize the danger of any kind of health consultation online. Relying on social media and digital creators can lead to self-misdiagnosis and potentially harmful misunderstandings.
Although the connections between the internet and our minds are ever-increasing, finding answers online is still not adequate. Just because research is out there doesn’t prove its infallibility. Furthermore, the virtual glamorization of mental diagnoses might pose a new threat to countering illness, especially during a pandemic. Either way, our mental health is becoming inseparable from the internet and approaches to research, policy, and mental health practices must address the change.