Young people are presenting to doctors with mental health symptoms learnt from TikTok videos, research finds
“This self-diagnosing isn’t just some kind of epidemic of attention-seeking or mass hysteria. There is a surge in young people suffering from genuine serious conditions like eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and self-harming.” Pat McGorry, professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne
Prolonged social media use is exposing young people to content about self-diagnosed mental health disorders and neurological conditions, encouraging them in turn to diagnose themselves, research has found.
A paper published in Comprehensive Psychiatry says that children and teenagers are spending a lot of time watching TikTok videos in which content creators describe their own tics, Tourette syndrome behaviours and eating disorders.
“This uptick has coincided with increasing numbers of youth who have presented to clinical providers or psychiatric services during the Covid-19 pandemic with what have been termed functional tic-like behaviours,” the paper says. “An increasing number of reports from the US, UK, Germany, Canada and Australia have noted an increase in functional tic-like behaviours prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic, coinciding with an increase in social media content related to Tourette syndrome and tics. Similar phenomenon has also been recently chronicled with respect to dissociative identity disorder.”
The researchers, led by Dr John Haltigan of the University of Toronto’s psychiatry department, say that the tic-like behaviours that children are presenting to their doctors differ from classic Tourette syndrome. They are presenting later in childhood, and their tics often predominantly affect the upper limbs, “with complex movements of the arms and hands, including clapping, sign language, throwing objects, banging oneself on the chest, head or thigh, or hitting other people”, the paper says. The phenomenon mainly affects adolescent females.
The authors conclude that there “is an urgent need for focused empirical research investigation into this concerning phenomenon that is related to the broader research and discourse examining social media influences on mental health.”
An Australian psychiatrist, Professor Pat McGorry, told the Guardian that it was important not to minimise the suffering of young people presenting to doctors with these symptoms. “This self-diagnosing isn’t just some kind of epidemic of attention-seeking or mass hysteria. There is a surge in young people suffering from genuine serious conditions like eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and self-harming.”
Research could help identify the reasons why young people were self-diagnosing and why some are influenced more easily, the paper said. It raised the possibility that those affected are trying to seek affirmation and attention, acquire social capital in online communities, or maintain an unconventional identity “that masks feelings of anxiety, depression, and possibly lower self-esteem”.
Videos on social media with hashtags such as #DID [dissociative identity disorder], #borderlinepersonalitydisorder and #bipolardisorderhave have received millions of views, the paper says, with many of these videos showing the creator switching personality. The creators often comprehensively describe each unique personality – often referred to as an “alter” – along with the names and characteristics of each alter.
The paper notes that there is a “vast online ‘neurodivergence’ ecosystem in which classical mental illness symptoms and diagnoses are viewed less as mental health concerns that require professional attention, but rather as consumer identities or character traits that make individuals sharper and more interesting than others around them.”
This is a fascinating piece of research that raises concerns about the way in which social media websites can be the source of social contagion amongst teenagers and children. While we know that social media can be helpful in spreading awareness of mental disorders, and in bringing communities with certain disorders together for mutual support, it clearly also has the potential for harm. We agree with the authors of the paper that much more research is needed both to investigate the phenomenon and to find ways of addressing it.