Is Social Media Making Kids Sick?

More than a dozen high school girls and one adult at LeRoy High School in upstate New York all are exhibiting bizarre symptoms similar to that of Tourette’s syndrome. Each person manifests behavior in varying degrees of severity, but all are struggling with some form of uncontrollable facial tics, body twitches and even vocal outbursts.

Following numerous environmental tests of water, air, soil and the like around the school, there is still no clear explanation about why this phenomenon seems to be concentrated on a small group of kids at a single high school.

Parents are understandably outraged, though many have rejected what many medical professionals have offered as a likely explanation. Conversion Disorder, previously called “mass hysteria,” describes the physical manifestation of psychological stress in any number of ways. It’s also been called “psychosomatic illness,” which basically means the same thing – the body demonstrates physically what’s going on mentally.

It’s been suggested that first-hand videos, text messages and posts on sites such as Facebook about the problems have fueled a psychological fire, causing others to begin manifesting the same disorder.

Many people’s first reaction to such claims, including that of many parents of the teens, is that this somehow suggests the girls are faking their problems. But to be clear, the suggested diagnosis is considered a real psychological disorder with profound potential consequences.

Several of the girls have dropped out of school since exhibiting the symptoms. Some have lost relationships with friends or boyfriends. Many report subsequent anxiety or depression due to the alienation the disorder has caused.

We’ve all seen the power of viral stories to affect people on a large scale. Reports of mass “hysterical blindness” are considered related to the same phenomenon. Having grown up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the LeRoy story in particular reminds me of the wave of suicides and violent outbursts that swept through Plano high schools back in the 1980s. Pearl Jam even wrote their hit song “Jeremy” about one particular case during that time.

It seems to me that there is an environmental factor that most are overlooking or minimizing, mainly because it is so ubiquitous and hard to measure. Young people today are considered by many health experts to be under significantly more stress than any modern western generation before them. But if you ask the girls from LeRoy High School, they claim they were under no more or less stress than anyone else they knew when the problems started.

But that’s just it; simply because we’re all swimming in the same ocean of emotional and psychological overload doesn’t mean that it should be considered normal or healthy. For better or worse, the human psyche is generally very elastic and adaptable. It is part of why we have flourished so much as a species. However, there are those who do not necessarily adapt as well to what has become considered “normal,” and the results can be debilitating, or even life-threatening.

I understand the desire of the families of these kids to find external causes for these mysterious problems plaguing their children. And in fairness to them, all due diligence should be demonstrated to rule out such triggers. But how do we measure the impact of contemporary culture on a system as complex as the human brain?

Simply because most of us can endure such dramatic increases in input and a breakneck acceleration of life’s average pace doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Perhaps this relatively isolated incident in upstate New York is a proverbial canary in the coal mine. But will it be enough to get us to pause and really reflect on what we’re doing to ourselves? More likely, it will become simply the latest distraction in the informational flood of our lives until we press on to the next thing demanding our attention.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date, and Hachette published his first hardcover book, "postChristian: What's left? Can we fix it? Do we care?" in 2014. His first novel, "Blood Doctrine," has been optioned by a Hollywood production company for a possible TV series.

Christian is the cofounder and cohost of the Homebrewed CultureCast, a podcast about popular culture, current events and spirituality that has a weekly audience of 25,000 people (

Preorder Christian's next book, "Not That Kind of Christian: Loving God without being an a**hole," at

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  • Steve DeFields-Gambrel

    A very thoughtful post. I absolutely agree that the entire society is under intense stress, and we’ve come to consider it as normal. This is why stress related disorders, immune system diseases, addictions, and anger/violence is so prevalent in our society. Modern western civilization is inherently, pathologically stressful. I also see signs of mass hysteria on several local, but troubling levels. For example, neighborhood watch groups saying “We are under siege by criminals,” when violent crime has dropped significantly and steadily int that neighborhood for years, and some of those folks starting to resort to vigilante style behavior, stalking homeless persons, etc. There is a deep-rooted fear, a near panic spreading in society which seems somewhat disconnected to any particular roots in reality. The question is how are we to respond as religious leaders.

  • Nowhere Man

    Hell, I wouldn’t doubt it. It’s practically like crack.

  • Linda Brendle

    An interesting phenomenon. I’ve heard that medical students often develop the symptoms of the diseases they’re studying. They’re under a lot of stress and are getting an enormous amount of input. It sounds similar to the pathology you’re describing.

  • cuffy_meigs

    “Jeremy” went to Richardson High School.