Tourette’s or Mass Sociogenic Illness? You Decide

According to German researchers, YouTube and other online platforms could induce a “mass social media-induced illness.”

A new report claims to document the first outbreak of a new type of mass sociogenic illness (MSI) that is spread solely via social media, what they are calling a “mass social media-induced illness” (MSMI).

In Germany, researchers believe the YouTube channel “Gewitter im Kopf” (or “Thunderstorm in the Brain”), run by 22-year-old Jan Zimmermann, has caused a MSMI over the past 2 years. A high number of young patients were referred to the researchers’ specialized Tourette outpatient clinic presenting with symptoms closely resembling the ones Zimmermann presents in his videos.

Zimmermann is the currently second most successful YouTube creator in Germany and enjoys enormous popularity among teenagers; “Gewitter im Kopf” has more than 2.23 million subscribers. Although researchers believe Zimmerman does have a mild form of Tourette syndrome, on his YouTube channel, he shows a countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviors that he claims are tics, but, according to the researchers, are clearly functional in nature. Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional Tourette-like behaviors, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.

“While our patients did not have direct personal contact neither to Jan Zimmermann, nor among each other, they got into indirect contact to Jan Zimmermann in the form of strong identification. Patients reported admiring Jan Zimmermann for his open approach to the supposed Tourette syndrome’ and for being successful despite his condition, which causes strong emotions and hence further triggers contagion,” researchers wrote. “Thus, current outbreak of ‘Tourette-like’ symptoms can be regarded as a new variant of MSI, where social media serve as an ‘extension of our eyes and ears’ and replace the necessity of being in direct visual or verbal contact with others for spread.”1

Researchers believe these functional Tourette-like symptoms can be viewed as a modern expression of a culture-bound stress reaction, perhaps in reaction to society’s emphasis on the uniqueness of individuals and promotion of attention-seeking behaviors. Alternatively, it could be a reaction to eco-anxiety, COVID-19, or further challenges.2

“We do not believe that our patients should be simply diagnosed as ‘Tourette-like’ [functional movement disorder] instead of being affected persons of an MSMI outbreak, since first patients presented in our clinic only four months after launch of the YouTube channel ‘Gewitter im Kopf’ and all patients confirmed having watched these videos before—or in some cases even during—manifestation of similar or identical symptoms,” the researchers wrote.1

MSMIs are predicted to have a potentially large impact on health care systems and society at large, since spread via social media is no longer restricted to locations, communities, or school environments.

References

1. Müller-Vahl KR, Pisarenko A, Jakubovski E, Fremer C. Stop that! It’s not Tourette’s but a new type of mass sociogenic illness. Brain. August 23, 2021. Accessed September 22, 2021. https://academic.oup.com/brain/advance-article/doi/10.1093/brain/awab316/6356504

2. The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey. Deloitte. Accessed September 22, 2021. https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html