Is it possible for social media to cause illness?
A student develops leg pain and paralysis all of a sudden, and soon hundreds of classmates are experiencing the same symptoms. Nuns start biting each other, and it quickly spreads to other convents in the area. Three high school girls start laughing uncontrollably, which can last for days. The school is compelled to close down after approximately 100 pupils acquire the same ailment.
Despite this, no medical explanation was ever identified in any of the cases. These were eventually labelled as examples of mass sociogenic sickness, often known as mass hysteria, epidemic hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness by many. Many potential sources for these ailments have developed over the years, and TikTok and other social media platforms may now be fertile ground.
What is sociogenic sickness?
Multiple persons in a social group acquire comparable, medically unexplainable, and frequently odd symptoms, which is the hallmark of these diseases. In some circumstances, persons who have been affected believe they have been exposed to something deadly, such as a toxin or a contagion, even though a comprehensive inquiry reveals no such thing.
Even in the lack of a clear explanation and normal test findings, the suffering produced by these conditions is real and intense. And, no, a person suffering from sociogenic sickness isn't "simply looking for attention" or "intentionally doing it."
It's not useful to label people as hypochondriacs or "mad," or illnesses as "hysteria." Hysteria and hysterical — both derived from hysteria, the Greek word for womb — are loaded terms that are frequently used to diminish women as psychologically unstable or biologically predisposed to uncontrollable emotional or anxiety outbursts. While some researchers claim that these illnesses are more common in women, the majority of the published research on the subject is decades old and based on a small number of cases.
Characteristics of mass sociogenic illness
People have fainted unexpectedly, acquired nausea, headaches, or shortness of breath, or experienced convulsive movements, involuntary vocalizations, or paralysis in previous outbreaks. These epidemics typically happened in groups of people who were in close contacts, such as at a school or office. Only a few cases appear to have been spread via television shows. Now, social media could be a new source.
Certain characteristics are typical:
suffering symptoms that, despite considerable research, have no clear medical explanation
Temporary, benign, and uncommon symptoms for individuals who have affected the fast onset of symptoms and rapid recovery
Individuals impacted are linked by their membership in and contact with a social group or through physical closeness.
In general, treatment entails the following:
excluding medical causes for symptoms
putting an end to the operation in which it occurred
removing individuals from the alleged exposure site (online or not)
separating affected persons.
Tics and TikTok: a new source of sociogenic illness?
The first documented cases of social media-induced sociogenic illness occurred within the previous year or two, coinciding with the outbreak. Neurologists began encountering an increasing number of patients with strange, uncontrollable motions and vocalizations resembling Tourette syndrome, particularly teenage girls. After excluding other possible explanations, the tics in these teens appeared to be related to the several hours spent viewing TikTok videos of people with Tourette syndrome and other movement problems. These videos, which were uploaded by social media influencers, have accumulated billions of page views on TikTok; comparable videos are also available on YouTube and other platforms.
What helped? According to some studies, treatment options include medication, counselling, and stress management. Avoiding social media posts on movement disorders and providing comfort about the illness's nature is also critical.
Geographical barriers may have waned in importance; now, the factors influencing these disorders may include social media, not simply physical proximity.
June bugs, dancing plagues, and mad gassers
Sociogenic illnesses are not new concepts. You may recall the "dancing plague" if you lived throughout the Middle Ages. Across Europe, scores of sick people reportedly began dancing involuntarily and deliriously until they passed out. And let us not forget the 1892 writing tremor epidemic, the mid-1940s Mad Gasser of Mattoon, or the 1962 June bug epidemic.
The times' anxieties and concerns have a role. Before the turn of the twentieth century, spiritual or religious connotations were prevalent. When worries about tainted foods and environmental pollutants were first raised in the early 1900s, strange odours or foods triggered a wave of palpitations, hyperventilation, dizziness, and other anxiety symptoms. Recently, inhabitants of the West Bank reported dizziness and fainting after believing adjacent explosions launched chemical weapons, even though no proof of chemical weapons was discovered.
Closer to home, speculation is rife that Havana syndrome may be another instance of mass sociogenic sickness, but no definitive conclusions can be drawn at the moment. Initially described in 2016 in Havana, Cuba, among members of the US State Department, those who experienced this developed acute headaches, exhaustion, nausea, anxiety, and memory loss.
Hundreds of people in various parts of the world have experienced these symptoms. Numerous others are foreign service personnel assigned to US diplomatic missions. Soon after the first case reports, suspicions grew that the ailment was being caused by a new weaponized energy source, such as microwaves fired from a distance. This has been attributed to Cuba, Russia, or other adversaries. The real nature and aetiology of this ailment are unknown at the moment.
Nocebo, not placebo
One theory suggests that a sociogenic sickness is a form of the nocebo effect. Due to the expectation of benefit, a placebo — such as a sugar pill or similar inert treatment — may help individuals feel better. The nocebo effect refers to the possibility that people will have a negative experience solely because they expect it to occur.
Consider this: you may be more likely to encounter a headache as a side effect of medicine if you have been informed about this possibility, compared to another individual who has been told about a different adverse effect. Similarly, suppose you observe people collapsing. If you assume this is the result of a drug they — and you! — were exposed to, you may faint as well, even if there was no real exposure to a substance capable of causing fainting.
We do not understand why some people suffer sociogenic illnesses and others do not. Numerous people are under a great deal of stress. Millions of people were trapped inside during the pandemic and spent more time on social media than they'd want to admit. Many people are susceptible to the persuasive power of suggestion. Nonetheless, the sociogenic disease is a rather uncommon occurrence. Even though this illness has existed for hundreds of years, much about it remains unknown. It is critical to maintaining an open mind. Certain incidences of sociogenic illness may be the result of an undiscovered environmental toxin or contagion.
If you or a loved one spends a lot of time on social media and has developed an illness that defies explanation, discuss the potential of social media-induced sociogenic sickness with your healthcare doctors. We may soon discover that it isn't so rare after all.