The Social Media Ripple Effect: Understand How Psychiatric Disorders Spread Among Teen Girls



Psychiatric Disorders

In a digital age dominated by social media influence, a recent collaborative study by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Cambridge highlights a concerning trend among teenage girls.

The study suggests that rare psychiatric disorders are spreading rapidly among this demographic, attributing the phenomenon to what they term “psychosomatic social contagion.” The research points to platforms like TikTok, where a “sick-role subculture” is leading adolescents to adopt characteristics associated with uncommon psychiatric diagnoses.

The TikTok Influence And Psychiatric Disorders

TikTok’s unique format of short-form videos, combined with its massive popularity among children and teens, has created a profound impact on mental health perceptions.

The study underscores the platform’s role in shaping a new wave of “psychosomatic social contagion,” wherein adolescents, particularly girls, are emulating and identifying with rare psychiatric disorders like Tourette’s, eating disorders, autism, and dissociative identity disorder (DID). Unlike traditional diagnoses, these conditions manifest suddenly and often deviate from established patterns.

Researchers argue that teenagers are drawn to identifying with and glamorizing these rare disorders as a means to express extreme negative emotions. Instead of stigmatizing their struggles, adopting these conditions provides a sense of community and uniqueness.

The study suggests that the purpose behind this phenomenon is to seek affirmation, draw attention to oneself, and acquire social capital within online communities.

Simultaneously, it allows for the maintenance of an unconventional “peri-psychiatric identity” that may serve to mask underlying feelings of anxiety, depression, and potentially lower self-esteem.

Lead author Professor Lee Smith, associated with Anglia Ruskin University, along with Tamara M. Pringsheim and Gayathiri Rajkumar, emphasizes the far-reaching implications of this complex relationship between severe mental illness and physical multimorbidity.

The study outlines various consequences, including decreased treatment compliance, increased risk of treatment failure, elevated treatment costs, relapsing diseases, worsened prognosis, and reduced life expectancy.

Poor clinical management of physical comorbidities in individuals with mental disorders compounds the issue, placing an increased burden on individuals, communities, and healthcare systems.

The study draws parallels to the early 2010s when content promoting self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide gained traction on social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. However, TikTok’s more potent impact, driven by short-form video content, has now made it the most widely used social media site for children and teens.

The authors reference a CNN article, illustrating how a 14-year-old girl started self-identifying with content creators, adopting multiple diagnoses including ADHD, depression, autism, mysophobia, and agoraphobia.

The researchers outline a distinct pattern observed among teenage girls on TikTok. They watch videos by content creators who self-identify as having these psychiatric conditions, showcasing symptoms during daily activities and framing it as a unique aspect of their identity. Subsequently, adolescents begin to present with the same outward symptoms, mirroring the descriptions provided by the content creators.

Despite the rarity of certain psychiatric diagnoses, particularly DID, social media platforms have seen a surge in related communities, with some even glamorizing and sexualizing the condition.

The study notes that while real-life DID is associated with significant trauma, the social media representation often serves as a means for young individuals to claim uniqueness and experiment with different identities.

The study prompts a reconsideration of current approaches to mental health awareness. Instead of stigmatizing mental illness, the researchers argue that a significant online “neurodivergence” ecosystem has emerged, where symptoms and diagnoses are viewed less as mental health concerns requiring professional attention and more as consumer identities or character traits.

The increasing algorithmic and visually immersive social media environment allows individuals to claim various identities, reshaping the perception of mental health in the digital era.

The study concludes by highlighting the urgency of addressing this evolving landscape to ensure the well-being of adolescents navigating the complexities of mental health in the age of social media.

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