Yesterday The Daily Dot reported on a recent case study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease with the captivating headline “Twitter Psychosis: A Rare Variation or a Distinct Syndrome.” The authors of the case study argue that, based on symptoms they observed in a 31-year-old woman admitted to a Berlin hospital, in certain instances, “social media might aggravate or even induce psychotic symptoms.” Naturally, this has led to a fair amount of concern — some of it expressed on Twitter, of course.
But you shouldn’t cancel that account just yet (unless, of course, you’re tired of pointless arguments and wasting your life virtually yelling at strangers), because there’s less here than first meets the eye.
The short version of what happened is that the patient was sent to the hospital “because of intensive suicidal thoughts,” and part of her problem seemed to stem from a Twitter addiction she had developed about a year prior:
The first symptom of her illness was that she believed that a famous actor responded to her Twitter messages through symbols in his messages or through retweets … by other users. During the next couple of weeks, Mrs. C increasingly felt that the messages of other users were ‘‘meant in a symbolic way’’ and that she had to react to these ‘‘tasks’’ in a certain manner. After approximately 2 months, she started to discover the same symbols in her real-world environment. She then started to feel that there ‘‘must be some organization behind these tasks’’ and started to suspect a sect, pointing to the development of systematized paranoid delusion. During the weeks before admission, her daily life was full of tasks leaving little to no time for any other activity. She finally felt increasingly desperate because she could not fulfill all of the tasks, became increasingly afraid of what would happen to her if she did not, and finally, developed intense suicidal thoughts.
The authors argue that Twitter, because it allows people to send users personally targeted messages via the “@” symbol, could exacerbate certain kinds of delusions by giving those suffering from them the impression that they’re being monitored, taunted, or controlled by mysterious forces. Throw in weird ads and misspelled solicitations from spambots and, the researchers argue, it could become a very creepy, disorienting scene for those already suffering from mental illness.
The “already” is key here, though, and that’s why the name “Twitter psychosis” is a bit much. Nothing in the case study indicates that Twitter can induce symptoms in people who wouldn’t already be predisposed to develop them. And while certain aspects of Twitter and other social-media platforms may nudge delusions in this or that direction, content-wise, you could say the same about … well, anything.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example, describes some of the symptoms of schizophrenia thusly: “You start to see special meanings in ordinary, day-to-day events. It feels as though things are specially connected to you — that radio or TV programmes are about you, or that someone is telling you things in odd ways, for example, through the colours of cars passing in the street.” While schizophrenia and related mental disorders are tragic, it’s also fascinating how the delusions these orders elicit interact with a sufferer’s exposure to different forms of technology.
No one’s positing “Radio Psychosis” or “TV Psychosis” because these technologies have been around for awhile; we’re less prone to point to them as culprits when something bad happens. And while it’s certainly possible that, in the long run, major lifestyle changes related to technology could increase (or decrease) the prevalence of mental disorders or anything else, the case study doesn’t make that argument; rather, it’s just one unfortunate woman’s Twitter-infused delusions mixed with a bunch of speculation and a Twitter-friendly headline.