The creation of the category “Twitter Psychosis" tells us more about the culture of contemporary psychiatry than it does about the purported dangers of social media overuse. Can Twitter really “cause” psychotic symptoms in predisposed individuals? Or is Twitter merely the latest technical innovation that influences “the form, origin and content of delusional beliefs” (Bell et al., 2005)? Twitter as the new telephone tower, radio waves, microchip implant or personal TV show, if you will.
Via Twitter (@DrShock, @vaughanbell), of course, comes news of a one page paper entitled, Twitter Psychosis: A Rare Variation or a Distinct Syndrome? (Kalbitzer et al., 2014):
The authors report the development of psychosis in a young woman coinciding with excessive use of the online communication system Twitter and the results of an experimental account to argue that Twitter may have a high potential to induce psychosis in predisposed users.
The authors presented the case of a 31 year old woman who was hospitalized for intensive suicidal thoughts and compulsions. She had no previous history of psychiatric illness and denied current hallucinations.1 Her friends and family said the symptoms began about 8 months earlier. Approximately 4 months prior to that she started using Twitter “excessively” (defined as “several hours a day reading and writing messages, neglecting her social relationships and, sometimes, even meals and regular sleeping hours”).2 At some point she came to believe that a famous actor was communicating to her personally (a common delusion), and to see hidden symbolic messages in Tweets:
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.
None of this really seems like a Distinct Syndrome, and I doubt it's even a Rare Variation any more. The authors wanted to discuss (with the larger medical community) “whether they already have to speak of a distinct syndrome of social media-induced psychosis.”
And in fact, Dr. Vaughan Bell is one of the top experts to discuss this issue, and I imagine he will address the authors over at Mind Hacks.
But then the Brief Report completely derails with an “experiment” reported in the remaining paragraphs...
The Ben Goldacre Experiment
"This is a path of brotherhood and love" says the new pope, immediately excluding a cool 4 billion people.
— ben goldacre (@bengoldacre) March 13, 2013
Someone (it's not clear who) created a fake account to address whether “Twitter communication responds to changes in communication style.” [NOTE: I'm not sure what this means.]
To test this, a test person created an account and responded to the messages of Ben Goldacre, the maker of the blog http://badscience.net. Our test person responded to a message of Mr. Goldacre about the pope, but Mr. Goldacre did not reply. However, the authors received an answer from an unknown participant, writing "<our username> Cold blooded RT. XXX: I am in the church: <link>." The link led to different Web pages with commercials.
...when the authors followed the link, they were confused about a flood of useless information (commercials). The authors understood that this was a spam message, but this might not be the case for a person who is predisposed to psychosis and, in addition, in a stressful psychosocial situation.
So from this ill-defined, bizarre and staged interaction with a test person, the authors concluded that “Twitter might combine several aspects that could induce or further aggravate psychosis.” In a presumably peer-reviewed publication.3
This is preposterous. Hopefully we will not see “Twitter causes psychosis” headlines any time soon.
Vaughan should have the last Tweet here:
How did this get published? "Twitter may have a high potential to induce psychosis in predisposed users" http://t.co/uHCcuxFB6S via @DrShock
— Vaughan Bell (@vaughanbell) July 31, 2014
Returning to the title of the post, here's more on Twitter and cultural artifacts:
Twitter as a Cultural Artifact
Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter
1 However, Bell et al. (2008) showed that individuals with delusions do not always have anomalous perceptual experiences.
2 I imagine “several hours a day” could apply to many individuals without a formal diagnosis of mental illness. I will not deny that Twitter and other forms of social media can have an addictive quality for some people, but the “Twitter addiction” construct is not very useful.
3 Can I put this blog post on my CV?? Here we learn about academic publishing in psychiatry and the propensity to categorize.
Kalbitzer J, Mell T, Bermpohl F, Rapp MA, & Heinz A (2014). Twitter Psychosis: A Rare Variation or a Distinct Syndrome? The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 202 (8) PMID: 25075647
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