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Tics and TikTok: Can social media trigger illness? – Harvard Health

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A red paper plane leading and white paper planes veering to follow it

A student suddenly develops leg pain and paralysis; soon hundreds of schoolmates have similar symptoms. Nuns begin biting each other, and soon the same thing is happening at other nearby convents. Three schoolgirls begin laughing uncontrollably, sometimes going on for days. When nearly 100 classmates develop the same problem, the school is forced to close down.

Yet in each case, no medical explanation was ever found. Eventually, these came to be considered examples of mass sociogenic illness, which many of us know by different names: mass hysteria, epidemic hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness. Over the years, many possible sources for these illnesses have emerged — and today TikTok and other social media sites may be providing fertile ground.

What is sociogenic illness?

The hallmark of these conditions is that multiple people within a social group develop similar, medically inexplicable, and often bizarre symptoms. In some cases, those affected believe they have been exposed to something dangerous, such as a toxin or contagion, although thorough investigation finds none.

The suffering caused by these illnesses is quite real and profound —even in the absence of a clear cause and presence of normal test results. And no, a person with sociogenic illness is not “just looking for attention” or “doing it on purpose.”

Labeling people as hypochondriacs or “crazy,” or illness as “hysteria,” isn’t helpful. Hysteria and hysterical — drawn from hystera, the Greek word for womb — are loaded terms, often used to diminish women as psychologically unstable or prone through biology to uncontrollable outbursts of emotion or fear. And while some researchers suggest these illnesses more commonly affect women, most of the published literature on this condition is decades old and based on a limited number of cases.

Common features of mass sociogenic illness

Past outbreaks include illnesses in which people suddenly fainted; developed nausea, headaches, or shortness of breath; or had convulsive movements, involuntary vocalizations, or paralysis. Usually, these outbreaks occurred among people in close proximity, such as at a school or workplace. Rarely, cases appear to have been spread by shows on television. Now, social media is a possible new source.

Certain features are typical:

  • experiencing symptoms that have no clear medical explanation despite extensive investigation
  • symptoms that are temporary, benign, and unusual for those affected
  • rapid onset of symptoms and rapid recovery
  • those affected are connected by membership and interaction within a social group or by physical proximity.

Generally, treatment includes:

  • ruling out medical explanations for symptoms
  • shutting down a facility where it occurred
  • removing people from the site of supposed exposure (online or not)
  • separating affected individuals from one another.

Reassurance regarding the lack of danger, and demonstrating that the outbreak stops once individuals are no longer in close contact with each other, generally reduces anxiety and fosters recovery.

Tics and TikTok: a new driver of sociogenic illness?

The first known examples of social media-induced sociogenic illness were recognized in the last year or two, a time coinciding with the pandemic. Neurologists began seeing increasing numbers of patients, especially teenage girls, with unusual, involuntary movements and vocalizations reminiscent of Tourette syndrome. After ruling out other explanations, the tics in these teenagers seemed related to many hours spent watching TikTok videos of people who report having Tourette syndrome and other movement disorders. Posted by social media influencers, these videos have billions of page views on TikTok; similar videos are available on YouTube and other sites.

What helped? Medications, counselling, and stress management, according to some reports. Avoiding social media posts about movement disorders and reassurance regarding the nature of the illness also are key.

Geographic boundaries may have become less relevant; now, the influences driving these illnesses may include social media, not just physical proximity.

Dancing plagues, mad gassers, and June bugs

Sociogenic illnesses are nothing new. If you had lived in the Middle Ages, you might recall the “dancing plague.” Across Europe, scores of afflicted individuals reportedly began to involuntarily and deliriously dance until exhaustion. And let’s not forget the writing tremor epidemic of 1892, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon during the mid-1940s, and the June bug epidemic of 1962.

The anxieties and concerns of the times play a role. Before the 1900s, spiritual or religious overtones were common. When concerns were raised about tainted foods and environmental toxins in the early 1900s, unusual odors or foods sparked a rash of palpitations, hyperventilation, dizziness, or other anxiety symptoms. More recently, some residents of the West Bank who thought nearby bombings released chemical weapons reported dizziness and fainting, although no evidence of chemical weapons was found.

Closer to home, reports are swirling that Havana syndrome may represent another example of mass sociogenic illness, although no firm conclusions can yet be made. Initially described among members of the US State Department in 2016 in Havana, Cuba, individuals who experienced this suddenly developed headache, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, and memory loss.

These symptoms have been reported by hundreds of people in different parts of the world. Many are foreign service workers attached to US diplomatic missions. Soon after the first case reports, suspicion arose that a new weaponized energy source was causing the illness, such as microwaves fired from some distance. Cuba, Russia, or other adversaries have been blamed for this. Thus far, the true nature and cause of this condition is uncertain.

Nocebo, not placebo

One theory suggests that sociogenic illness is a form of the nocebo effect. A placebo — like a sugar pill or another inactive treatment — may help people feel better due to expectation of benefit. The nocebo effect describes the potential that people could have a negative experience based purely on the expectation that it would occur.

Think of it this way: you may be more likely to experience a headache from a medication if you’ve been warned of this possible side effect, compared with another person warned about a different side effect. Similarly, let’s say you see people fainting. If you believe this is caused by a substance they — and you! — were exposed to, you may faint, too, even if there’s no actual exposure to a substance that could cause fainting.

The bottom line

We don’t know why some develop sociogenic illness while others don’t. Plenty of people have lots of stress. Millions of people were stuck inside during the pandemic and turned to social media for more hours each day than they’d like to admit. Many people are prone to the power of suggestion. Yet, sociogenic illness remains relatively rare. Despite existing for hundreds of years, much about this condition remains mysterious. An open mind is important. Some cases of sociogenic illness may be due to an environmental toxin or contagion that wasn’t detected at the time.

If you or a loved one spends a lot of time on social media and has developed an illness that defies explanation, talk to your healthcare providers about the possibility of social media-induced sociogenic illness. We may soon learn that it’s not so rare after all.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content.
Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date,
should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Social Media Increasingly Linked With Mass Shootings – Forbes

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On Wednesday, authorities in Texas identified Salvador Ramos as the 18-year-old shooter who had opened fire in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Ramos, who had killed at least 19 students and two teachers during his shooting spree on Tuesday, had allegedly posted disturbing images online prior to carrying out the senseless attack.

According to reports, an Instagram account allegedly connected to Ramos featured disturbing photos. That account has since been taken down.

It was just last week that New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, announced that her office was investigating social media companies after another mass shooter had used the online platforms to plan, promote and stream a massacre in a Buffalo grocery store that left 10 dead. James said her office would investigate Twitch, 4chan, 8chan and Discord along with other platforms that the shooter used to amplify the attack.

Many are asking if warning signs were missed.

“It is impossible to prevent people from making threats online,” explained William V. Pelfrey, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Yet he suggested that social media organizations do have a moral responsibility to identify and remove threatening messaging.

“They are generally abysmal at this task. Direct threats (i.e. I want to shoot the President, I want to kill myself) frequently are flagged and investigated. Indirect threats are much harder to identify and rarely receive any attention,” Pelfrey continued. “Many social media companies will need to make decisions – protect individual’s rights to make oblique threats or protect safety. Compromising freedom of speech seems abhorrent until we weigh that compromise against the lives lost in Buffalo or the many other places where radicalized violent extremists found their motivation to kill.”

The Anti-Social Networks

As the United States remains very much in what President Joe Biden has identified as an “Uncivil War,” where the country remains so politically divided, the platforms that were once about friendly discussions have evolved very much into “anti-social networks” where people now find themselves in echo chambers that support their opinion and views.

“Social media has compounded a growing racial, cultural and gender divide in America and the world,” explained Anthony Silard, professor at the Luiss Business School, Rome, and the author of The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age.

Social media has enabled the actions of extremists to be live-streamed to the masses.

“One facet of the Buffalo shooting that is critical for understanding its conception and operation is that it was not the work of one person,” added Silard. “The shooter brought his thought community with him via live stream. They were poised and ready to send out the horrific imagery of innocent people being slaughtered before the social media site, Twitch, could take it down, in an impressive two minutes. They succeeded, yet millions watched from the comfort of their screens.

“With his thought community virtually present and at the ready, the shooter felt less alone and propped up by the hate-imbued ideology of his group,” Silard added. “Herein lies an important point for lawmakers to consider about the role of social media in this tragedy: it enabled rapid, collective action by a hate group.”

Lack Of Empathy

Social media has also been seen as responsible in lowering the empathy of most Americans. It is easy to “speak your mind” about someone on social media based on a tweet they made or something they posted on Facebook. Even like-minded individuals with similar interests can find themselves in serious flare ups that turn hostile.

This has been common with email, posts on Newsgroups and online forums, but has increased significantly in the era of social media.

“One of the primary reasons social media has become so dangerous to a healthy society is that it erodes empathy. The reason town hall meetings became a healthy medium for cross-aisle conversations is that people had to listen to each other, even when they disagreed,” said Silard.”Now that these conversations have gone online, empathy has fallen to the wayside. A recent meta-analysis of seventy-two studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, for instance, found that the empathy levels of American college students have dropped 40 percent, which the authors primarily attribute to the rise of social media.”

The social media platforms have largely failed to address the issue, and in some cases it has only served to radicalize individuals, such as the recent mass shooters.

“Social media companies like Facebook promised us that its services would encourage people to care more for each other and express their authentic views more both online and in person. None of this has happened,” warned Silard. “Instead, recent Pew research has found that people speak up less in person now for fear of retribution. Why? Social media has helped them realize there are many opposing views out there they would prefer not to confront.”

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Media Advisory: Premier Furey to Announce Additional Measures to Help Residents with the Cost of Living – News Releases – Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

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The Honourable Andrew Furey, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Honourable Siobhan Coady, Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance, and the Honourable Bernard Davis, Minister Responsible for Labour, will announce additional measures today (Thursday, May 26) to help Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with the cost of living. The event takes place at 1:00 p.m. in the Media Centre, East Block, Confederation Building.

The announcement will be livestreamed on Facebook.

– 30 –

Media contacts
Meghan McCabe
Office of the Premier
709-729-3960
meghanmccabe@gov.nl.ca

Victoria Barbour
Finance
709-729-4087, 327-6152
victoriabarbour@gov.nl.ca

Lynn Robinson
Environment and Climate Change
709-729-5449, 691-9466
lynnrobinson@gov.nl.ca

2022 05 26
11:10 am

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Ideon Media announces exclusive Canadian partnership with VICE Media Group – GlobeNewswire

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TORONTO, May 25, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Ideon Media announced today it will serve as the exclusive ad sales and branded content development partner for VICE Media Group (VMG), the world’s largest independent youth media group, in Canada. VMG digital properties, which include VICE.com, and Refinery29.com, reach a combined 13.3 million unique visitors in Canada per month across all platforms (GAR, GWL, Comscore, VICE Census).

The new partnership will see Ideon Media exclusively represent the commercial activity of  VICE.com and Refinery29.com in Canada to brands and advertisers. This includes the sale of media advertising and sponsorships, production of branded content as well as affiliate advertising and commissions.

“VICE leaves an indelible mark on the public discourse, with impressive in-depth reporting and authentic storytelling that resonates worldwide. We’re so proud to represent VICE in Canada, and so flattered that Ideon has been given full latitude to help Canadian advertisers tell their stories on platforms like VICE and Refinery29 using Canadian talent and creators,” said Kevin Bartus, Ideon Media President and CEO.

“VICE is a true Canadian media success story, and has always been the gold standard for integrated campaigns targeting the youth demographic, and I am thrilled to be working with the company again. From best-in-class branded content, to incredible brand-sponsored events, and even cutting-edge proprietary digital ad products; VICE and Refinery29 allow brands to reach a huge Canadian audience of highly influential Gen-Z and Millennial young people in authentic and meaningful ways,” said Shawn Phelan, Vice President of Brand Partnerships, Ideon Media.

“I am delighted to be partnering with Kevin, Shawn and the team at Ideon in Canada to drive future growth across our publishing business. Our shared passion for the VICE brands, storytelling, breakthrough content solutions and our audiences will allow us to realise our ambitious growth targets in the market and to forge new opportunities with brands and advertisers,” said Luke Barnes, Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Digital Officer, EMEA, VICE Media Group.

ABOUT VICE MEDIA GROUP
VICE Media Group is the world’s largest independent youth media company. Launched in 1994, VICE has offices across 25 countries across the globe with a focus on five key businesses: VICE.com, an award-winning international network of digital content; VICE STUDIOS, a feature film and television production studio; VICE TV, an Emmy-winning international television network; a Peabody award winning NEWS division with the most Emmy-awarded nightly news broadcast; and VIRTUE, a global, full-service creative agency. VICE Media Group’s portfolio includes Refinery29, the leading global media and entertainment company focused on women; PULSE Films, a London-based next-generation production studio with outposts in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Berlin; and i-D, a global digital and bimonthly magazine defining fashion and contemporary culture and design.

ABOUT IDEON MEDIA (www.ideonmedia.com)
Ideon Media is a Toronto-based digital firm that offers a wide spectrum of advertiser solutions with best-in-class publisher representation and wholly owned and operated sites, including SavvyMom.ca and 29Secrets.com. Ideon specializes in custom content programs created by our award-winning in-house editorial team, influencer programs, events, performance network, proprietary data, and analytics. Ideon Media reaches a combined total of 18.6 million Canadians (Comscore, March 2022).

For more information or interview requests: Shawn Phelan at shawn.phelan@ideonmedia.com

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