Skepticism

How Teens Around the World are “Catching” Tourettes

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Transcript:

I’ve long been fascinated by people who “fake” illnesses. It’s such a complicated mash-up of psychological disorders, real physical issues, medical neglect, marginalization — just a big mishmash of things I weirdly enjoy thinking about. I’ve talked in the past about how “chronic lyme” isn’t really a thing, despite thousands of people thinking they have it and a small industry of quacks willing to sell treatments for it. Chronic Lyme has all those attributes I mentioned — some of it may be psychological, I’m sure many of the “symptoms” are real physical pains the people experience, they’re often women who are often disbelieved and dismissed by medical professionals.

And I’ve often wondered if there’s a social aspect as well. As an enjoyer of garbage television, I was very interested in the story of Yolanda Hadid, the wealthy mother of models Gigi and Bella Hadid. On Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Yolanda became notorious for speaking out about her chronic Lyme, which she claimed also spread to her kids. How does a fake disease spread? And if it “spread” to her kids, could it also spread to the huge audience that watched her on Real Housewives? Researchers have noticed a burgeoning number of “chronic Lyme” patients springing up over the years in parts of the country where there are no ticks that cause Lyme, and a lot of it seems to be, like in Yolanda’s case, parents pushing the diagnosis on their kids.

But fake illnesses can also be spread from peer to peer, as detailed in a new study out of Germany called “Stop that! It’s not Tourette’s but a new type of mass sociogenic illness.” That’s right, Tourette’s! A very real illness caused by a faulty nervous system, resulting in uncontrollable tics like repetitive jerky movements or vocalizations.

Tourette’s can be absolutely debilitating for a small minority of people who have it, interfering with their day to day life. For most people, though, the tics are minor and the casual observer may not even notice them — YouTuber Ethan Klein is a prominent example of someone who has tics (eyebrow bouncing) that most people would dismiss as just a weird habit. Sometimes the tics persist throughout a person’s life and sometimes they disappear. There’s also no one easy test to diagnose Tourette’s, so it often goes under the radar.

So! A disorder that presents in a variety of ways, that can’t be easily diagnosed, that is attention-grabbing, and that is experienced by at least one prominent social media star? That’s a recipe for disaster.

Over on TikTok, Evie Meg found viral fame by showing her Tourette’s tics while trying to do simple tasks like pouring cereal. Meg is part of a larger trend of people with disabilities using social media to destigmatize conditions that were previously mocked, or only spoken of in hushed tones, or feared. That is an absolute good thing, both for the people who are running these types of accounts and for others suffering the same condition who might be looking for help or just want to feel less alone. 

Unfortunately, when all this happens on social media it comes at a cost: impressionable teens will see someone get rewarded with popularity, attention, and sometimes money and think, “Hmm, maybe I can do that, too.” Maybe they even genuinely start to think they have certain disorders. All of the rewards, with little to none of the actual pain, discomfort, and inconvenience of a real disability.

That’s what psychiatrist Dr. Kirsten R Müller-Vahl noticed was happening at her clinic in Germany, where some time in 2020 she realized they were getting an influx of adolescents and teens claiming to have Tourette’s when they obviously didn’t. This coincided with the viral fame of Jan Zimmermann, a man who claimed to have Tourette’s and after launching his YouTube channel in 2019 quickly became one of Germany’s biggest social media star.

Müller-Vahl points out that Tourette’s specialists can pretty easily detect the difference between actual tics and “functional” behaviors that are done on purpose. She says that Zimmermann clearly has mild Tourette’s which he supplements with “exclamations of long sentences with insults, swear words, and obscenities that are in this form unknown in Tourette syndrome. Furthermore, the number of symptoms and in particular the number of different swear words and insults presented is countless and thus far beyond that of tics in Tourette syndrome. Finally, presented symptoms quickly change nearly on a weekly basis in parallel to newly released videos, while “most popular” symptoms are repeated several times.”

Sure enough, the adolescents and teens that came flooding into doctors’ offices had “tics” that were not just similar to Zimmermann’s but EXACTLY the same, like shouting the German equivalent of French fries, and flying sharks alongside things like  “Heil Hitler”. They also performed “bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.”

They also changed their tone of voice when “unintentionally” shouting things, obviously used their “condition” to get out of chores they didn’t want to do, and were cured completely once the doctor explained they didn’t actually have Tourette’s.

Müller-Vahl points out that while half her fake Tourette’s patients were female, Canadian researchers reported a 9:1 ratio in favor of girls. The main difference between the two countries? The viral star in Canada was Evie Meg, a girl.

Müller-Vahl says that this falls under “mass sociogenic (or psychogenic) illness,” aka mass hysteria, an absolutely fascinating condition that can take a lot of different forms. For instance, there was the Dancing Plague of 1518, in which hundreds of people in modern-day France danced their asses off for several days, some of whom may have died. Contemporaneous reports are conflicting on that point, probably because everyone was too busy dancing to take notes.

This stuff has also happened in modern times, like with the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic of 1962 in which three girls started laughing and soon nearly 100 kids were yukking it up, without it dying down for another year and a half.

The difference with this new Tourette’s epidemic is that the disorder spreads through indirect contact, amongst people who have never met. These kids don’t personally know Evie Meg or Jan Zimmerman, but they “caught” the disorder anyway, via social media. Hence, Müller-Vahl proposes a new term: mass social media-induced illness (MSMI). Thanks to social media, the problem can spread further and easily cross borders, especially once a new group of “Tourette’s sufferers” also hops on social media to show off their tics, exposing more people to the hysteria.

The situation is made all the worse by COVID, forcing millions of kids to sit inside all day looking at social media and feeling intense anxiety. Experts seem to agree that for all those previous mass sociogenic illnesses, stress was the primary motivator. Life in 1518 France wasn’t a picnic, as starvation and disease were rampant (which is also probably why there were seven OTHER dancing plagues during the medieval ages), and those kids in what would later become Tanzania in 1962 were experiencing the first year of their country’s independence, marrying modern ideas and potential with conservative elders and expectations.

So yeah, the French had their dancers, the Tanzanians had their laughers, and we have our…TikTokkers with tics. Not quite as fun I guess. And the downside is that all the good being done by people with real disabilities sharing information about their lives is now going to be offset by fakers doing silly, stereotypical imitations and spreading an unrealistic, false picture. Worse, there are well-meaning people trying to call out the fakers, like those on a subreddit called “illnessfakers,” which will inevitably lead to people being suspicious of those who actually have a disorder, and in some cases people with a real disorder might be harassed. Many disorders are invisible, or unpredictable, and in general we don’t want to force people to “prove” they have some disability before we give them our attention or sympathy or seat on the bus. At the same time, we don’t want to elevate someone who is (knowingly or not) faking a disability because of the obvious harm that causes.
There are no easy answers here, unfortunately. It’s just all around sad. I recommend you stay skeptical, but remember that while a psychiatrist who specializes in the disorder may be able to easily tell a “real” tic from a fake one, you cannot. Also remember that even a “fake” disorder often has a real underlying problem, and psychological problems are just as real as physical ones. So be nice.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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5 Comments

    1. I thought of that episode as well.

      I also wonder if social media are inducing the current trans craze/fetish amongst girls but not boys. The info I’ve read is that the number of girls suddenly claiming to be trans has increased dramatically. There’s undoubtedly a lot going on here, between ordinary misogyny, sexual harassment, stress, etc.

      1. As someone who is trans myself I am in favor of kids being allowed to explore their gender identity in the first place, and I don’t think there’s any harm in letting them experiment with presentation and identity. The ones who come through that deciding they want to move forward with medical transition will be so much better-informed for it, and it’s not like they’re going to be put on hormones or getting top surgery immediately. At most they’ll get puberty blockers which just give them a bit more precious time to decide with no long-term effects (while the long-term effects of getting the wrong puberty can be devastating; again, speaking from experience on this).

        As far as why there’s a gender disparity, misogyny can explain that too; assigned-male people are under enormous amounts of pressure to conform and be manly and masculine, and the social and physical penalties for an AMAB kid being a “sissy” are far worse than an AFAB one being a “tomboy.” Not to mention the privilege differential.

        1. Of course. Kids should absolutely be free to explore and experiment. My concern is that some of them may do something irreversible, such as surgery, without being counselled, emotionally prepared, etc., then realize they made a huge mistake later on.

          1. Fortunately, surgery and hormones are extremely gatekept, and aren’t made available to anyone under 18, at least in the United States (and even as an adult they’re really difficult to get). I get that you’re concerned but this is absolutely a non-issue.

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