The rapid spread of behavior, attitudes, or emotions through a social group – also known as social contagion – has been documented and debated for centuries. Today, the large volume of available digital content and the hyperspeed of its dissemination through powerful social media algorithms may be creating a new and powerful avenue for contagion.  How might content on social media or in TV shows and movies impact symptoms of movement disorders, self-harm and even suicide?  What should parents and caregivers know about viral social media challenges?  What should a caregiver do if they are concerned their child may be susceptible to contagion behaviors from online content?

Children and Screens held the #AskTheExperts webinar “Copycat: Social Contagion, Online Viral Behavior, and Youth” on Thursday, February 29 at 12pm ET. A panel of psychiatrists, behavioral researchers, and public health experts discussed the current research on associations between media content, youth behavior trends, and mental health outcomes, and shared signs parents and caregivers should be aware of that may indicate vulnerability to negative effects from social contagion.

Speakers

  • Vicki Harrison, MSW

    Program Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine
    Moderator
  • Andrea Giedinghagen, MD

    Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine
  • Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, PhD, MMSc

    Professor of Public Health, Head of the Public Mental Health Research Unit, Deputy Head of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Medical University of Vienna
  • Pamela Wisniewski, PhD

    Associate Professor of Computer Science, Flowers Family Fellow in Engineering, University of Vanderbilt

[Kris Perry] Hello and welcome to today’s Ask the Experts Webinar: Copycat Social Contagion Online Viral Behavior and Youth. I am Kris Perry, executive director of Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. We have a fantastic panel of experts joining us today to discuss the ins and outs of social contagion or how behaviors and emotions spread among people.They will begin with presentations covering the impacts of both traditional media and social media and explore topics including mental health, suicide and viral challenges. Now, let’s jump right in and meet today’s moderator, Vicki Harrison. Vicki has over 25 years of experience working within the public health, education and mental health sectors, developing innovative community based programs at the local, state and national levels. As program director of Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Well-Being. She develops and implements a portfolio projects promoting early intervention and increased access to mental health services and support for young people. These include All Cove, a first of its kind integrated youth mental health model in the U.S. and #Good for Media, a youth driven peer mentoring program focused on social media and youth mental health at Stanford Psychiatry’s Media and Mental Health Initiative partner partnering with the media Mental health and technology sectors to enhance the positive impacts of media on youth mental health and well-being.Welcome, Vicki.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thank you so much, Kris. And thank you, everyone. Thank you for covering this topic. I appreciate Children and Screens raising this up and I’m really excited to talk with my fellow panelists today. I’m just going to share a few slides to kind of kick off this topic and and get us kind of on the same page with what we’re talking about. So the title for this here is Copycat Social Contagion Online Bio Behavior and Youth, which is a mouthful, but we’re really talking about a lot of different things. And and part of that is because we really don’t have one shared definition of of what it is that we’re talking about. But we know that there’s some similar behaviors and patterns that we’re trying to really understand and pick apart. And so I’m hoping that today will will do that. And for those of you listening, you’ll get a better understanding of kind of what these patterns might be, how to look for them, when they’re a problem and when they’re not, And and also what we still need to learn. So really, contagion, it’s mostly a public health term, the way that we use it. And I think that also applies in this context. So we think about it in terms of like biological pathogens, bacteria or viruses. And really, we found that contagion can be also intangible. So emotions can spread in the same type of way. But really, I think the way that at least I talk about contagion is this third bullet here, which is exposure to a behavior by one or more people, influences others to engage in the same or similar behavior. In the suicide prevention community, which is, you know, part of where I’ve gotten exposure to this topic is we have these concepts that we’ve coined as the Werther effect and the Papageno effect and the Werther effect is really establishing how the the amount of media attention given to a suicide story and the way that it’s covered is directly correlated with subsequent suicides. And our first presenter is going to really showcase how his work has really shown how that happens. And he’s really one of the leading researchers who demonstrated this in the contemporary age. But really the topic or the title, I should say, is Borrowed from the Sorrows of Young Ritzer, which was a book published in the late 1700s where a protagonist died by suicide. And it was one of the first documented cases of the contagion effect happening in the population. People were following suit with copies of the book nearby and with the same means of death. So. So this is really something that’s been going on for many, many centuries. And the good news is that it’s also the opposite effect that we had seen. The Papageno effect, which is coined from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and where that where a character considers suicide and then decides not to to die by suicide with some intervention from supportive spirits. So we do see that there is also the chance that things can be prevented. As a result of this being established for you know centuries. There are guidelines that exist for how the media can reduce this contagion effect. So these are some examples that really globally adopted the World Health Organization and ChatSafe out of Australia has has done the first job of really trying to move it towards social media contexts, tempos and reporting on suicide.ord are some other ones here in the US. The other thing that we kind of talk about in this category is more of these like influencers, online challenges, some of these other other types of behaviors that are similar. And our other two panelists are going to kind of cover some of these areas. And and I think this is where we still need a lot of a lot of support, understanding exactly what we’re talking about. But some of these, we know are are positive and like coined the term influencer culture, understanding that people are directly influencing others and that’s not always a bad thing. But there are some challenges that are very concerning. I know we’ve gotten some questions about conspiracy theories and radicalization and how that applies. So we might try to to see if there’s any similarities there that we can pick apart. But I also want to just highlight this last bullet here, which is when we talk about adolescence, that the adolescent brain is really wired to be very, very sensitive to peer influence and so that is something that kind of undergirds this whole conversation. So this is just kind of a mix of some of the things that might be going on when we think about what’s what’s at play here in a contagion type effect. And it’s really a mixed list. And I’m hoping maybe some of our panelists will address some of these. But really, you know, just to touch on a couple, you know, you’ve talked about how the adolescent stage is is different than being full, fully formed adult. And so you’re going to be more susceptible to certain things and you’re going to have your different states of your brain development. So you might have more impulsivity, more prone to risk taking. Also still looking for identity and sense of belonging. And also there’s some things regarding the the distortion of the message, maybe through the digital media environment we are getting that message amplified in ways that haven’t happened before so that dosing really can have an impact potentially. One thing that I have found helpful is again, going back to this public health model and this epidemiological triangle which some people may have seen before, it’s used for the public health community to kind of look at how a public health issue is spread and maintained. And so if you think about it in this context, I mean, there’s a host, agent, and environment. Those are the three indices in something like COVID. You know, you have the host who’s the individual who may have a susceptibility based on age or chronic illness. The virus would be the agent and then the environment. It’s maybe whether there’s masking whether it’s higher viral load in the in the community, those types of things. In this type of scenario, you know, we could see the same thing if we look back at that list, if the host is the individual, what susceptibility might they have based on their age, preexisting mental health issues? The agent could be that the exposure to some sort of message in a media environment and then the environment and the external factors could be how amplified is that message? How close are they to the messenger? How do they identify with that person or that that platform? And how easy is it on the platform for that to spread? So we still have a lot to sort out. We’re going to try to do a little bit of that today, but we really do need to not only do more research in the area, but also just generate more awareness, like through this webinar about the dynamic influence the media has, especially for vulnerable groups and youth, and that hopefully that can lead us to some ideas for for better supporting and creating some guardrails in that area. So I’m going to pass it over to our first presenter who I’m very, very excited we get to hear from. I referred to his work all the time and I’m really excited that you all get to hear from him so this is Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, who is a professor of public health and the head of the Mental Public Health Research Unit, Medical University of Vienna, Austria. For 17 years, Thomas has led suicide prevention research as it relates to media portrayals and communication about suicide and the development of media specific recommendations for the portrayal of suicide and mental health nationally and internationally. Thomas has served as an advisor to international tech companies for the Prevention of Suicide and self-harm, and he is currently a vice president of IASP, the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Welcome Thomas.

 

[Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler] Thank you so much Vicki for this very nice intro and thanks also to Children and Screens, Kris for the invitation to be with you today. It’s a really important topic and Vicki has already mentioned some of the very basics I will use. Now in my presentation to go a bit more into depth. I’ve also seen one question that was about differentiation between the harmful side of contagion, which we call the Werther effect and the positive side. Which we could also call contagion, contagion of hope the Papageno effect. So I hope that after my presentation it’s a bit more clear what how to differentiate these two effects. I will touch on the evidence for both effects and also talk about risk mitigation. So how to reduce the risk for a Werther effect. So the Werther effect. Vicki has already described what this is about. It’s about increases in suicides typically seen after sensationalist news reporting of suicide. There’s one example here Robin Williams, who died from suicide in 2014, and his suicide was followed by a lot of reporting over several months in the United States. And there was a strong uptick in suicides in the months that followed this kind of reporting. For a long time, however, it was not quite clear how large this effect really is, and this is why we conducted this meta analysis published in the British Medical Journal in 2020. So we looked at all of the available evidence at that time and checked what the effect size really was. And you can see the different studies here. Each line represents one of the good quality studies and the increase was really 13%. So there is an increased typically of about 13% in suicides in the months after there is sensationalist reporting about this suicide from a celebrity. So what does this number mean in the US in 2022? According to the CDC, there were about 4100 suicides per month. So a 13% increase is about 541 additional suicides. So that’s a big tragedy, a big loss to families, friends and also to the community. And as we we are also going to speak about just in a minute, some of these suicides can be prevented and we will discuss this in a minute. But let’s first go to look at the entertainment media sector. So a different type of media, but also very important. So actually there is much less research in the area of entertainment media compared to news media. However, there are a few quite recent examples which are very relevant to our considerations here. One of them is 13 Reasons Why the Netflix series that was released in 2017. Season one features the suicide of 17 year old Hannah Baker. Hannah Baker is a student at the high school. She experiences different stressors adolescents typically have during that time, like having bullying, break up, substance use, different kinds of relationship problems. And she really wants to get help for her problems. But her help-seeking is portrayed as futile, even counterproductive. And then there was originally this very graphic suicide scene in the series. Now, Netflix, after the release of several studies, cut out the series. So if you look at that show today, there is no more that suicide scene. But at the same time, this plot is really dangerous. And there were concerns immediately from different mental health organizations about the possible impact. And we looked at this in detail in this paper published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2019, and we found that in the three months after the release of the series, about 94 additional suicides among 10 to 19 year olds in the United States, this is an increase of about 13%. And as you can see here, the increase was stronger among girls and young women, 22%, and that there was also an effect among boys and young men, 12%, and there was no effect in other age groups. So this pattern is really very much consistent with a possible contagion effect because you would expect a large effect among girls because the main character, she’s also a girl and it’s easier to identify with someone who shares demographic similarity. On the other hand, of course, also boys and men are affected by the same problems. So it also makes sense to see a certain uptick in boys and young men, but not really in other age groups. So what can we do about those phenomena? There are, as Vicki has already said, there are media guidelines available, and these media guidelines are really tools for media professionals to make safe portrayals of suicide and not only of suicide, but also of suicide prevention. So what kind of help can you get that? Where can you get help? How can you get help? So there are resources for traditional media and youth media. This one is from the W.H.O. they are, of course also very similar guidelines in the United States. And the other one is here for the entertainment media there is this resource from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. So both of these resources actually highlight that it’s that portrayals should not focus on suicide methods. They should rather focus on help seeking, provide resources on where to get help for those who are at some risk of crisis and suicidality. Of course, it’s not only media professionals, particularly when it comes to portrayals like 13 Reasons why there are many groups who are affected. It’s parents, it’s educators, teachers. It’s the youth, of course, themselves. It’s also clinicians and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education in Minnesota produce these 13 reasons why tool kit for season two, actually. And here you have resources for all these different groups like for parents, how to speak about this series like 13 Reasons Why how to do that, how to approach this topic within the classroom. That’s the resource for for teachers shown here and even in the clinical setting it is now recommended. The UK has an official recommendations for physicians working with suicidal teenagers to ask them about their media consumption, including a viral series like 13 Reasons Why. So all of that is important and you can find these resources here under www.13reasonswhytoolkit.org. Now, these resources are also very helpful when it comes to other media portrayals like we have found that you can use the very same resources also to speak about any other suicide related portrayal because the basics, they always remain very similar. It’s just very specific details that need to be adapted. On the other hand, this not only harmful content and it’s also something that we might call contagion of hope, contagion of recovery. And we call this the Papageno effect. So this goes back to a study we did in 2010 here in Austria, where we showed that there is a specific type of media portrayal which is not associated with increases in suicides, not with similar suicides, it is associated with decrease in suicide subsequently. And these are not reports that’s about suicide. These are reports about people who were in a very difficult life situation, some of them considering suicide. But then taking alternative acts and getting help. And that’s what this kind of reporting is all about. And we did a lot of studies since then, experimental studies to test this effect. And one of them we also did with adolescents, we published this in the European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Journal, and that we really worked with schools to produce videos by teenagers and they aged between 14 and 16 who describe their own crisis situations in the past and how they coped with it. And here you can see an example. So the youth describing how they deal to themselves, how they got help with difficulties, including suicidality. And we then did a randomized controlled trial including 300 young people between 14 and 19 years. They watched the videos or a control video and we assessed suicidal thoughts and feelings, their help seeking intentions at baseline immediately after the video and at four week follow up. And what we found was really encouraging. There was a sustained increase in help seeking intentions. So young people seeing those videos, they’re more likely to say they would seek help when they were suicidal themselves. And there was also a reduction in suicidal thoughts and feelings. This was mediated by identification, which means they’re more they identified with the protagonist shown the greater was the reduction in suicidal ideation. And this also shows us how important it is to have different portrayals featuring hope and recovery. Because, of course, any one of us, depending on his or her life situation, identifies it identifies with a different portrayals. So it’s important to have a diverse set of stories. Now it turns out that we can use this concept for quite a few different areas. Here for example, it’s that’s another study we did. It’s about the “It Gets Better” project. The “It Gets Better” project that targets LGBTIQ+ youth who experience bullying and suicidality difficulties during coming out. And these are all about stories of other LGBTIQ+ youth and their friends telling their stories how they struggled during their own coming out and what they have done to cope with it. And we found again a reduction in suicidal thoughts, particularly among trans and non-binary individuals who are a specific risk group. Before I come to a close, let me just add this final example. We have one big problem in suicide prevention, and that is the media is full of examples of suicides, celebrity suicides everywhere you look. But there is portrayals of hope and recovery are much harder to find sometimes, and they reach a much lower proportion of the population. There is at least one exception to this rule, and this is this song. The song 1-800-273-8255 from US hip hop artist Logic. It was released in 2017. It was among the top three of the US top 100 for several weeks. So this was really big, reaching a different audience, of course, than typical education videos or messages. And we checked what kind of impact this might have had on suicides and on calls to the lifeline. Now, this was the previous lifeline number, now it’s nine, eight, eight. And we found that there were nearly 10,000 additional calls to the lifeline in the 30 day days of strongest public exposure to the song. And at the same time, there was a reduction of 245 suicides during that time, which is really promising. And it really shows us that there are really two sides of the coin. One is the harmful side of contagion, the Werther effect that we need to apply risk mitigation strategies, working with teachers, working with young people, working with clinicians and of course with the media. The other side is really about positive contagion of hope and recovery, which shows that if there are messages to how people are, other people have coped, that can be very helpful to different audiences. Thanks.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thank you so much. It was really great. And I one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is that you study both the harmful as well as the hopeful with this effect. And I’m really glad that you highlighted so many of the examples of of how we could kind of counter this this strange contagion effect. And I think we you know, we did get some questions about is there something you could do in advance to kind of change the result? And I think that you’re suggesting and correct me if I’m wrong, that we want to just diversify narratives and spread more stories of hope. Is there anything else that you would add to that question?

 

[Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler] Of course, it’s always important. I mean, when it comes to being proactive, it’s of course changing the narrative. And this means sustained work with the media, with media professionals, because it’s some somewhat really means to change the most dominant narrative in our culture. And that’s the narrative of tragedy surrounding suicide. Now, this tragedy is very real, but at the same time, also coping is very real. And whenever we get out stories of hope and recovery that can be very helpful to different audiences. Now, the other thing, obviously, if it’s about working with one’s own child, for example, and seeing what we can do is being in context, speaking about media content, seeing how they experience different kinds of content. This is also about risk mitigation because of course, all of that needs to be age appropriate. We had the example of 13 reasons why from Netflix. There are, by the way, other examples. Even Netflix had another series. It’s called Not Alone. Now young people speak up about how they struggled with depression and suicidal feelings and how they got help. So these kinds of portrayals are very useful and it’s really important also to discuss with young people what the different what how they perceive the different kinds of content.

 

[Vicki Harrison] That’s great. Thank you. And I know one thing that I struggle with, you know, doing some similar work to you and trying to prevent suicide and the risk that the media can introduce is with social media. You know, we’ve we’ve adopted these these guidelines that have been around for a while for journalists and now with social media, we’re all journalists, right, Because we’re all the ones posting. And so do you have any suggestions of how to interrupt this contagion effect in this new social media context? Any friction points we can add or anything we can do to really? Since we don’t necessarily have the same, you know, journalist audience that they contain with these other guidelines.

 

[Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler] This is also so important from a media literacy perspective, particularly with the newer social media. We all need more media literacy. And I think, Vicki, you mentioned the chat safe guidelines. I think they are really very helpful in this regards because they educate, they are done, made with young people. So it’s not about young people. It’s really a work collaborative work with young people. These are guidelines on how to safely communicate about suicide in online media settings. This means how to respond to someone else, what considerations to make, am i actually in a position to respond at all, or should I not respond this time? What can I say? Who do I have in my close environment to speak about it afterwards? Or during during the posting. So what do I do if I am suicidal? How would I communicate that? Does it make sense to do this online or is it better to do it offline? Many times it’s better to do offline if possible. So there are many considerations here. And just this chat safeguard guidelines. I think they are very important resource for young people, but also for parents who want to get a better understanding about these very new media to our age group.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, thank you. And one more question and then I know you need to hop off. One of the the pre submitted questions was about any research that suggests youth engaging in an online copycat or contagion are more prone to mental illness or psychiatric conditions. I don’t know if you’ve looked at that in your work at all.

 

[Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler] Yes, there are at least two studies on this. One is from our country, Austria, and the other one is from Australia that I am aware of. So what we did is we we asked young people, we asked youth about their suicidal thoughts, about their depressive symptoms, about social anxiety, about barriers to help seeking, about how their attitudes to help seeking. And we asked them if they were using the Internet for suicidal purposes, which could mean searching for help, but could also mean searching for other things online, including very dangerous searches for suicide methods, for example. So we asked them if they were using the Internet for those purposes. And what we found was clearly that these individuals, these young people who were using the Internet for suicide purposes deliver more suicidal, though in our case, they were also more depressed. There were no differences to others when it comes to barriers of this for help seeking. And then in the Australian study, there was an additional difference when it comes to social anxiety. So those who were more socially anxious, they were also more likely to post online, which also makes sense. So there seems to be a clear indication that the group who is online is a particularly important risk group also for us.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Okay, well, thank you so much for your presentation and for giving us also some hopeful strategies. And we know you have to leave and we’re so, so appreciative that you were able to meet us and despite the time zones of where you are. So thank you so much, Thomas.

 

[Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler] Thank you so much. Thanks.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Alright. So we’re going to move ahead with our our next presenter. So this would be Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen who who’s a child and adolescent psychiatrist with research interests related to the impact of social media on conversion and factitious disorders in teens. She’s also a clinician who works with adolescents and young adults. She’s a graduate of Cornell University and completed medical school residency and fellowship at Washington University in Saint Louis. Welcome, Andrea.

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] Hello. So good to see everyone and thank you for that kind introduction. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to speak with you today about TIktok, tics and social contagion. We’ll begin with a little bit of vocabulary and some take home points. We’ll go through a story that illustrates a lot of concepts that we’re going to discuss. We’ll talk about two potential explanations for this phenomenon, and then we’ll talk about what we can do to help. A little vocabulary first, I’m going to use some psychiatric terms, some medical terms. When I talk about conversion disorder, I’m talking about folks unintentionally manifesting symptoms as a sign of distress, not someone intentionally, quote unquote, faking it or producing symptoms they don’t actually have. On the other hand, sometimes people do intentionally produce symptoms. And what we call that depends on the reason. If someone is producing symptoms like tics, for instance, for social or psychological reasons, like wanting increased connection or getting something out of being in the sick role, then we would call that factitious disorder. On the other hand, there are some people who produce symptoms for concrete rewards that could be time off work, that could be money through a go fund me, and in that case we would label that behavior malingering. The take home is that teens can copy behaviors as we’ve already seen through Thomas’s and Vicki’s work, but they can even copy symptoms. That’s not necessarily indicative that someone is faking it. It can be deliberate, but it can also be unconscious. And it’s almost always a way of filling a need that is unmet. Treatment involves decreasing exposure, as we’ve seen, and there’s a dose response relationship. The more exposed someone is to those behaviors, the more likely they may be to cope by using them. And by identifying that unmet need and meeting it. Kai is not a particular person, but a sort of concatenation of a number of patients I’ve seen over the last several years. She’s sixteen years old. Spending seven and a half hours a day online, which is actually not significantly different from the average teenager in the United States with a history of major depression and with a lot of social media accounts and a lot of online friends. I am a clinician, so I’m just going to describe what I see when someone walks into my office. This patient, for instance, walked in and said, I think they have Tourette syndrome. The very first thing that I hear then began shrugging her shoulders, clapping and saying words like, Wow, what we would consider complex vocal and motor attacks. When I talk a little bit more with Kai and mom, I learned that she’s been following influencers with similar symptoms for several months now and her for you page, which for those of us who need to know what the FYP stands for, I had to look it up. I am chagrined to say is where you are served by the particular social media outlet additional recommendations based on what you’ve been watching already. She started to show these symptoms after following these influencers and now she’s posting about her own tics on social media. Mom and she concerned because she’s noticed that Kai doesn’t tic when she’s alone and also not when she’s unaware that Mom’s watching. So Mom has some questions, understandably. Is Kai just making this up? Did she catch this online somehow, and most importantly, how should she respond? We come then to the concept of mass psychogenic illness, which simply put or not, so simply by is the rapid spread of an illness affecting members of a particular cohesive group with physical complaints that don’t have a physical cause that we can suss out. We can look back to medieval Europe for examples of this, the photo that’s attached there is a painting of the medieval dancing place. During the 15th and 16th century, entire cities in medieval Europe would begin dancing and would dance for days or even weeks at a time, sometimes to the point of death, and that. That old illness is still manifested through new media. In fact, social media is really primed for mass psychogenic illness. Online disclosure, for instance, can foster a really rapid sense of intimacy. You might feel like someone who’s been your online friend for two weeks is someone you’ve known for years because you’ve had the opportunity to talk so deeply about topics. In that same sense, the cohesive group, which once upon a time might have been a city or town, can be a YouTube channel’s subscribers, it can be a subreddit. There’s also the exacerbating factor that more extreme content tends to get more likes and more attention, and that the algorithm is constantly feeding people more information that’s similar to what they’ve watched before. And that can lead to a feeling that everyone’s doing it. We saw this really starkly during the pandemic when a lot of people were interacting largely online, and there was a phenomenon of what was labeled mass social media induced illness, where young people who are watching Tiktoks by influencers with Tourette syndrome started developing new symptoms that resembled tics but didn’t exactly match up with the phenomenology or the picture we would typically expect with Tourettes like, for instance, the people that were catching these tics tended to have more dramatic presentations. For instance, Coppelia, which is the fancy psychiatric word for having texts that include foul language, is pretty rare in Tourette syndrome, but was something that was seen commonly in this group of people. Similarly, there were some tics that were so similar to influencers that social scientists have actually been able to track a particular tic around the world. In this case, it was an influencer who was clapping and then saying the word beans, and this was something that was seen circling the globe. There were also other clues, like the fact that the tics tend to steadily worsen rather than fluctuating like we would typically see with Tourettes. There are also starting to be doubts that maybe these weren’t all conversion phenomena, these weren’t all being involuntarily produced. There started to be a glut of articles looking at the possibility that people were deliberately appropriating illnesses, that someone might be faking. And that leads us to the concept of factitious disorder by Internet. So Factitious disorder, as we discussed, is when someone produces symptoms for the purposes of occupying the sick role or getting care or attention, but in this case involves consciously misrepresenting symptoms in an online scenario. And again, this is specifically to get attention or care, not to get money, not to put up a GoFundMe fund or other rewards like that. The difficulty in figuring out exactly what’s going on in a situation like this is that the signs of factitious disorder by Internet and mass social media induced illness, which I have shortened because it is a mouthful, is that in both cases you have symptoms that aren’t typical for the illness, and if you’re a parent, you might not know what the typical symptoms are anyway. There’s also the likelihood that someone has a preexisting mental health issue or some sort of stressor, like the pandemic, for instance. There’s also the possibility that symptoms are becoming a major focus of identity, like we saw with Kai talking a lot about it, posting about it online, talking about it with friends and having symptoms that very closely resemble those of influencers. Again, as we see with Kai, there also tend to be more intense presentations in this scenario. It’s fairly unlikely that someone has a very mild case of Tourettes and is going to walk you through the 20 hours a day when they’re not having any symptoms. So when I’m discussing this with a parent, is she just making this up? We have several options. There’s the conversion explanation, which would be, again, unconscious production and a manifestation of stress. There’s the factitious explanation, which you can’t really call unless you have someone who’s disclosing to you, Yes, I’ve been doing this because I wanted additional time or attention. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not uncommon for people with conversion phenomena to sometimes exaggerate things. It’s also not uncommon for people with factitious disorder to have other mental health conditions that caused them to manifest other symptoms. What’s really important to figure out is what’s driving the behavior. And keep in mind that the young person may not know. It could be something like avoiding responsibilities or getting more viewers, but it could also be getting special attention, whether that’s from mom, from dad, friends, or even if they have a preexisting relationship with the therapist. For a lot of folks, it’s also a way of connecting with others and creating a sense of belonging. If someone’s not able to do that in a more adaptive way belonging to a group. Whatever the price of entry is, is very important. Part of being an adolescent, establishing your identity is their developmental task during that age range, I frequently get asked, So are you saying kids are just doing this for attention? Yes and no. Human beings actually do many things for attention. I would argue most of us do most of the things we do, at least in part for attention and human beings. We need attention to survive. It doesn’t make someone bad or wrong. The kids that I see coming in with factitious presentations, for instance, are doing it because they’re not sure how to get that need met in another way. And being sensitive to the fact that there’s that pain or that need for a connection allows us to be really charitable in our evaluations and in our interventions. So how can we help? First, if you have concerns about this, removing, as we discussed from the environment, can mean taking a break from social media for a while or monitoring more intensely and making sure that we’re not constantly on the for You page that’s full of hashtag tics or a hashtag Tourettes or whatever the issue du jour is also a redirecting so not focusing over much on that symptom, it’s also important to treat the real problem. And some people do present with symptoms that mean they have Tourette syndrome. It’s important to seek professional help and rule out that there’s a problem that isn’t psychiatric first. It’s also important if you’re not sure what to do or how to deal with it, to seek out advice from a professional such as a psychiatrist or therapist who is versed in these issues.Thanks so much. 

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thank you. That was so interesting and I know a lot of a lot of people have been seeing those headlines, especially during the pandemic, and really trying to make sense of them. So thanks for helping do that. One follow up question I had, and I know we can chat more in the Q&A section. I was struck by that the bullet you had at that most some of the symptoms closely resembled those of influencers. And I wondered to what extent you think just like developmental peer influence and just, you know, trying to emulate your friends and whether it’s dressing like them or doing a tic or something that they do. To what extent do you think that plays into this? 

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] I definitely think that plays a major role. It is not for nothing that the group that we saw this happening in was overwhelmingly adolescent girls right similar to Thomas’s observation that we were not seeing a lot of additional suicides in 50 year old men because of 13 Reasons Why this is not something that we are seeing a lot in different age groups. It tends to be in folks who are adolescents who are searching for that sense of belonging, who are, as you said, wired to respond really positively and intensely to peer influence. And so I don’t mean by using the terms Factitious disorder or conversion disorder to medicalized every single presentation, but when someone is exhibiting those signs and symptoms to a point that it’s interfering in their functioning, that’s when I think it’s time to step back and say, maybe we should get a professional involved.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thank you, that’s really helpful. Okay. Well, we’ll come back and ask some more questions. But first, we want to let our next speaker give her presentation. So I’d like to welcome Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, who’s an associate professor in human computer interaction and a Flowers faculty fellow in engineering. She’s an expert in the interplay between social media, privacy, and online safety for adolescents. Her work has received a number of conference supports and has been featured by popular news media outlets, including ABC News, NPR, Psychology Today and U.S. News and World Report. She’s an ACM senior member and the first and only computer scientist to be selected as a William T Grant scholar. Welcome, Pamela.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Thank you for having me today. And so I’m going to be approaching viral social media challenges from the perspective of human computer interaction and research about what we know on social media. So what do we know about viral social media challenges? So one of the things that I’d like to ground us in is that this is a new take on an old tradition coming from the Oregon Trail, a generation I remember as a kid there were ding dong ditch, or tping somebody’s house or playing truth or dare. And to some extent, what we’ve seen is that many of these kind of challenges that we do in our younger years have gone viral in this new online phenomena, viral social media challenges. Now, what we see in the news headlines is the emphasis on the grave dangers of these viral social media challenges, especially on our youth. From eating tide pods to fabricated bomb threats to other things that could lead to harm and even potential death. But we have to kind of ground ourselves in this idea that the biggest difference of what teens are doing now versus what they were doing when we were kids is that it’s how quickly these challenges can spread on social media and that the severity of the consequences. For instance, Orlando News had me provide comment on a case in Florida where 11 year old boy fabricated a bomb threat to share on Tik Tok. Because of that bomb threat. Charges were pressed and we have to consider if this were just an offline phenomenon would the consequences be as severe as they are now because they’re being shared publicly and documented. So when we see these news headlines and the great danger that our youth are, and because of these viral contagion effects of social media, we tend to have this fear based reaction of, well, we want to protect them from these risks. And we want to get this situation under control and fix the problem, which often leads to restriction. And more surveillance based oversight. However, what we know about other forms of youth risk behavior is that taking more of an evidence based approach is more beneficial than reacting based on fear. So what does the research say? So this research was some work that I did with collaborators at Clemson University, where we are studying the contagion effects as they exist on social media. Today, I’m going to be presenting some high level findings from some of the studies where we studied the portrayal of the Blue Whale challenge, suicide prevention safe messaging guidelines as it applied to news reports of the Blue Whale challenge, as well as whether or not harmful social media challenges propagate through Reddit, and then whether behavioral contagion theory helps explain the participation in viral social media challenges among young adults. So when we examined actual content on YouTube and Twitter regarding the Blue Whale challenge, which is a challenge that allegedly asks youth and encourages them to engage in self-harm and eventually kill themselves, we first acknowledge that there’s quite a bit of controversy about the Blue Whale challenge in terms of the prevalence in the virality of the challenge overall. So we took this lens in mind when we were looking at the the hard data. We studied videos and posts on both YouTube and Twitter to understand the key themes that arise from this data. So what we found is first, because we’re looking at social media trace data, we cannot determine with any certainty the age of participants. We can estimate that these are youth and young adults, for the most part, participating in these conversations online. But we were surprised to find that most of the conversations were ones for users raising awareness regarding Blue Whale challenge and were discouraging participation. Others were criticizing or making jokes about participants or the challenge itself, which was kind of a negative presentation. Others expressed sorrow for people with mental health issues and then a very small percentage of people were sharing personal experiences or asking how they could play or participate in the challenge. And what we also found is that many of these experiences were secondhand, such as my coworkers daughter, participated in the challenge. So this just shed some light on the types of messages that are being sent in these spaces and whether or not our idea that the challenge itself is what’s viral is really the case. The other thing we did is we looked at 150 newspaper articles that were reporting on the Blue Whale challenge to assess whether or not they adhered to the suicide prevention adherence safe messaging guidelines. Most concerning, we found that 81% of these articles violated at least one of the safe messaging guidelines, such as normalizing suicide, discussing the means of suicide and sensationalizing, and they also potentially spread misinformation and where they attributed suicides to the Blue Whale challenge with little or no evidence. We also studied harmful social media challenges on Reddit, and we saw some similar trends where the posts discussed the participation of others, perceptions of the challenge. Prevention and raising awareness, seeking information. And the lowest incidence was one’s own participation in these challenges. Again, we saw that there was a lot of offensive commentary towards those who would participate, which is obviously not helpful for those who are seeking attention and having mental health challenges. But we also found people talking about tips and tricks on how to perform a challenge even more safely and in some instances where Reddit was moderating these posts actively. Because we wanted to move beyond studying social media trace data to understanding the motivations to engage and participate in viral social media challenges. We conducted an interview study with 30 young adults between the ages of 18 and 27. So just acknowledging that this is not the younger or adolescent population that we are are talking about today, but there are some things that I think can be generalized. We applied behavioral contagion theory to look at some of the the dimensions in which behavior can become contagious. Such that the dosing and the characteristics of the person performing it being similar to those who take part later on. So what we found from the contagion theory perspective is that behavioral contagion was useful, but not fully able to explain all of the reasons of how and why young people used social media to engage in viral social media challenges. We found that instead of the more implicit ways that contagion can create influence, there was also overt social influence and intrinsic factors, particularly for prosocial challenges such as the Ice Bucket Challenge. People were most more socially motivated to show that they were virtue signaling and participating in the challenge, even though they were actually making donations to ALS. But for the riskier challenges, Some of the things that were interesting is that our participants told us they performed some of these challenges without sharing it on social media, and it wasn’t based on similarities with other participants, it was more related to their own mental health struggles. But some positive things we found is that these challenges were often modified by the participants to increase safety and the awareness of potential harm for those who participated in the risky challenges they said would have deterred them for participation. This is some forthcoming research that we have coming out this year where we analyzed the direct messages, the private messages of youth on Instagram regarding conversations about suicide and self-harm. So I just wanted to kind of leave this talk with a positive lining is that youth are providing positive peer support on suicide and self-harm prevention through the use of social media, and many of these conversations were positive. However, there was a dark side where youth also joked, bullied, spread rumors and used hyperbolic language regarding suicide and self-harm, which should be addressed more carefully in the future for prevention opportunities. So some practical advice which is informed by this research is one talk to youth regarding the potential physical harm of participating in viral social media challenges, but balanced out with acknowledging some of the potential benefits as well. When reporting or sharing negative consequences of viral social media challenges. Even As Ed users, we should adhere to safe messaging guidelines and avoid fear based narratives that sensationalize or provide detailed statements. We also need to discuss practical strategies to minimize harm while maximizing benefits associated with social media challenges and encourage our youth to take this approach when sharing these challenges with their friends. The best way to get a teen to tune out is if we take this fear based approach and abstinence based approach of just telling them no to everything instead of giving them some practical ways to keep themselves safe. We also need to ensure that youth are being exposed, positive peer pressure and social influences. I love that the talks today also talked about that, and as parents, we need to be a source of advice and support rather than one of judgment and punishment, because that keeps the lines of communication open with our children. And then finally, last but not least, we need to build stronger systems that support youth mental health and not to place all of the blame of some of these challenges on social media. You can find the research that I talked about today on my lab website, the Stir Lab, and thank you for your time.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thank you so much. Well, another really interesting set of slides and so much in there. One just follow up question and then we’ll open it up to a broader Q&A. I thought it was really interesting how you showed that some of the people participating were modifying the challenges to make them safer or less risky. And I wondered what you thought was behind that. Like they were still wanting to participate, but not take the risk. And I wonder if you have any insights into that.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Yeah, I mean, some of the challenges in the interview study that they participated in were the Ice bucket challenge, the Kiki challenge, the Harlem Shake challenges, like the Kiki challenge as well, where you kind of you you keep your car running down the street, you jump out and dance. Right. And so they would modify it to maybe not have their car turned on or have somebody else like steering the car. But they wanted to participate in the challenge because they perceived it as fun. And so again, it was kind of looking at the positive side of doing some of these things in a way that wasn’t as potentially harmful as the original challenge itself.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Got it. Okay, great. Well, we have some time now to go into a broader Q&A. And I know we’ve been collecting some questions that have come in and some came in in advance. So I’ll just start asking for some input and hope that we can have a good discussion about some of these. One for Andrea was how do you balance affirmative approaches to therapy and challenging copycat presentations?

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] Yeah, absolutely. So when I have someone like Kai come into my office, I do not immediately say, you got this online. That is not helpful, that is not affirming. That does not start a conversation. What I’ll frequently do is that I will ask someone. Okay, you’re telling me that you’re concerned that you have X. Tell me about those concerns. Where did you learn about it? Oh, you saw it online. Show me and we’ll watch the videos together. And sometimes we’re able to have a conversation about. Huh you know, sometimes people can pick things up from things that they see a lot. And sometimes it’s a matter of having a little bit longer conversation over the course of time that people who are under stress sometimes show that in different ways. Right. So some people, when they’re really anxious, get headaches or stomachaches. Sometimes it can show up in movements like the ones that you’re doing, but providing that reassurance without absolutely coming down and saying, no, this is what’s going on. I know what the issue is. I’ve also had some folks come in who have seen, say, videos about autism or ADHD who have not been caught before, but because they’ve been able to access this information in a way that’s accessible to them and get a diagnosis that they need, that they genuinely have. So keeping an open mind and being collaborative rather than authoritarian. 

 

[Vicki Harrison] Okay. Yeah. And that was another question was what are the what are the treatment approaches? If you do have someone coming in with some of these behaviors and I think you touched on some of that, but is there anything more you would say about that generally, how you would how you would treat these behaviors?

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] Absolutely. So especially if someone has like a conversion phenomenon or what we would call a functional neurological disorder, that’s something that a psychiatrist can help with. But you also want to get, say, an occupational therapist involved, depending on what symptoms someone is showing, so that they can gradually learn ways to tell that the symptom is going to happen and to cope with the stressor rather than focusing exclusively on the behavior. So treating the underlying anxiety, depression, response to, I had someone who is having severe symptoms because went into a class that she really disliked because it was stressing her out. So being able to realize, okay, I’m getting ready to go into math class, what can I do to soothe myself so that I don’t manifest those behaviors.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Right. And this would be for either of you, we’ve gotten some questions about like gender identity and LGBTQ youth and whether this phenomena would apply to some some of the gender questioning or gender dysphoria. And if there’s any influence that’s been researched and I realize this might be a difficult question, that we might not have the research, but do either of you know, know of this effect and have any thoughts on that particular angle?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] I can speak from the perspective is that there is a higher prevalence of gender dysphoria in neurodiverse communities, particularly on autism and translating that to some of the things that we know about autism and the susceptibility of information that’s being shared online. There is a potential, but I don’t think I’ve seen any studies in terms of contagion effects in that space. I think that’s definitely an area that should get some more attention in terms of research to to understand it.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. Thanks for your thoughts on that. I, I, I also have not seen anything really in the research about that. You other than there’s a lot of community of that LGBTQ plus youth find online. But I don’t think I don’t know that there’s a contagion effect that’s been documented. Okay. Some more questions about how do we foster positive contagion effects online and do positive influencers exist? And I know I know you both touched on that a little bit, but I don’t know, like Pamela in your work, did you look at any and you looked at some quote unquote, positive challenges. Have you also looked at influencers?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] We have not looked at influencers yet, but one of the things that we did find in our research is that a lot of people are trying to do something positive by raising awareness about the harms of some of the challenges that are out there. But I wonder, and I haven’t studied if there’s an unintentional effect of increasing awareness about a challenge that otherwise people might not be thinking about in a way that also could contribute to contagion on social media, about the potential harms and trying to move towards prevention. And I wonder if more of the more positive approaches of talking about empathy and hope and ways to cope would be a better approach as a way to kind of remove that opportunity cost instead of putting something out there like we’ve seen that with like school shooters of people not trying to publicize the the perpetrator as much so that we don’t get copycats from that perspective.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah. I also I know that there’s a kind of growing movement of a lot of mental health influencers to people who are sharing their stories of recovery or their struggles as they’re still experiencing illness, and that they have quite a few followers and I, I think that it’s one of those double edged swords where I think that there’s potential for misinformation or for pathologizing normal, everyday struggles when there hasn’t been a diagnosis given. But I know a lot of people also find community and validation in hearing people talk about things that they might be experiencing themselves. So I think, yeah, it’s just the kind of risk and reward of having this open source community. All right. If nothing else on that, I’ll move to another question and maybe also stuff for you, Pamela. That was if there’s anything parents can do, like to monitor these viral trends or these challenges, is there any place where they’re, you know, other than searching hashtags? Is there anything you would recommend for a parent who wants to kinda keep tabs?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Honestly, I think the most important thing is approaching your your kid with curiosity and open communication and lack of judgment because there is no way we can keep on top of the next viral trend. And so having that open communication with them and checking in with them on their day is, the best way to just understand where are youth might be susceptible. I also saw a question in the chat. If you want me to address that, like should you be restricting social media? Should we be monitoring software? And the answer to that is yes, within reason. Can you guys hear me? Because you’re frozen on my screen.

 

[Vicki Harrison] You’re cutting a little bit out. But I think you’re responding to the question about monitoring.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Yes. Yes. And so we’ve done quite a bit of work on parental control apps. And overall, we found that while there beneficial for younger teens when they’re first getting online, they’re perceived as privacy, invasive and hurt the trust relationship between a parent and a teen older years. So what I encourage parents to do is take more of an apprenticeship model. So my daughter is nine years old and I created a Facebook profile that’s my own, but I allowed her to use it. But I can check it and I can look at that with her and she’s not using it on her own because it’s my profile and not hers. But it’s a way to teach them early on, some good social media practices. So she knows that if somebody sends a private message that she doesn’t know to block them. And so teaching youth in very controlled ways kind of an apprenticeship model is much better than taking a restrictive and authoritarian approach where they’re cut off from it and then all of a sudden they have open access. So I like to use the metaphors of you wouldn’t give your 16 year olds the keys to your car and just tell them to drive without teaching them how. Or you wouldn’t give your toddler a bike without training wheels to first teach them how we need to put the appropriate scaffolding in place so that we are teaching them how to engage online safely.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, and thanks for uplifting. Oh, Andrea did you have something to add? 

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] Yeah. I was just going to say I have similar conversations a lot. A metaphor that I use is that you would probably not drop, you know, even your 14 year old somewhere in downtown St. Louis where I happen to be and just leave them there for 7 hours a day, which is about how much time the average American teenager spends on social media. Right. So just like you would want to check in, know what they’re doing, know who they’re hanging out with. The same applies online. Not that you have to be watching their every move. Not that you mean to be invading their privacy, but talk with them. Talk with them about what they’re watching. Watch some of it with them. Talk about the games they’re playing. Know who they’re talking to. It doesn’t have to be something that feels oppressive. It can actually be a way of fostering connection with your child and helping keep them safe.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yes. Thank you. I, I love that. And also use that same analogy. And I think that it’s really powerful and I agree with those messages and just involvement and. And I, I know, as I’ve said before, there seems to be this hesitance that the parents have to invade the privacy of their young people and try to monitor and get involved. But I, I really encourage that, especially if they’re getting access at a young age, just like you’re more involved in everything. When they’re younger and then they grow into that responsibility. So along those lines, do you think that there’s any way that schools can be involved in helping with like mitigating some of the risk for these online challenges or these copycat behaviors?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] I’ve seen two ways that schools have been involved as one, in having classes or outside speakers to talk about digital literacy. Two, there are laws in place that there is content filtering at the school level for K through 12, both for cybersecurity and some of these other problematic behaviors, such as bomb threats and threats related to suicide and self-harm. And so I think they should continue to take that dual approach of the that works in, the systems at the school level. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that giving our kids control in elementary school. And so making sure that they’re of equal partner and helping parents monitor that because some parents might not be as tech savvy and the resources at the school may be able to help.

 

[Vicki Harrison] We also got a question about is there are there any recommendations for the platforms themselves, the tech companies? And I know a lot of what we’ve been talking about is what parents can do with media literacy, what clinicians can look for. Do you think there’s anything at this stage that the platforms should be doing to help in this area?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Do you want to go first?

 

[Vicki Harrison] It’s okay if you don’t have any suggestions. 

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] So I recently went to a kids online Safety and wellbeing at the White House and spoke very strongly about taking an online safety by design approach because the approach that we have right now is a of a report and block approach. Instead of thinking about how we can embed safety features proactively in the design of these platforms. And so I think that’s really one thing that we need to think about in legislation, is to create features within these platforms that are informed by youth to empower them in these online situations.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah, there’s a lot of momentum for that. I also think it was really important what you were what you were highlighting about how the media really picks up these challenges and kind of creates hysteria around them. And I think that there’s something very real to that. And so the the news media is also, I think, a partner in this and really verifying how much something really is a concern before amplifying it. I know that, you know, I get reports from my children’s schools when there’s been a a challenge reported to be happening and there may or may not even be any evidence of that. Right. And so then it just creates this hysteria and then maybe people go and seeking it out. So it’s actually feeding the contagion. So I know that we’ve talked to some of our journalist partners about that and really verifying the facts before reporting on something in order to minimize that contagion. All right. We we also got some questions just around like neurodiversity. I know you touched on that. Pam, I don’t know, Andrea, if there’s anything that you would say around susceptibility that you’ve seen to some of the behaviors that you’ve studied or if it’s different for neurodiverse populations. 

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] I have seen in my clinical population where I see a fair number of neurodiverse folks that there does tend to be greater exposure, just books, spending more time online that that for a lot of neurodiverse folks is their primary mode of social interaction. And that means that they may be more susceptible to a viral challenge or to picking up a behavior than someone who has a lower dose of that sort of exposure. And so I think in those cases, that does not mean that online friends are not real friends. That does not mean that we don’t spend any time online. But it does mean that in addition to having those online supports, we try to have additional supports and try to connect to online communities that have those positive impacts that we’ve been emphasizing throughout the day today.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] I would add to that my family is neurodiverse and some of the things like I sent a private message to Andrea on it would be interesting to look at the phenomenon of ticks on TikTok in relation to neurodiversity and stimming because I know that there are some psychosomatic symptoms where my daughter or my husband might pick up a new stim based on their level of stress. Right And it’s not something that they’re making up or faking it. It’s really something that’s happening for them at a subconscious level. And I think that’s really to note. We’ve also done some work with young adults who are on the spectrum in terms of how they use social media and they interpret the affordances of social media more literally than what we would see in a neurotypical audience, for instance. When Facebook says something like Share about your day, we found that young adults sometimes countered challenges where they shared too much because they were told to share or when their friend’s in on the chat, it said available and they sent a message and the person didn’t respond. They got upset. Because it said they were available. And so just some of the susceptibilities and vulnerabilities that we know from this particular population, we need to take those into account as we think about the virality of these some of these social media challenges.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Can you say more about stimming? I heard that a lot from my kids lately, and I wonder if you could just share what that is for folks.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Yeah. So stimming is a way that somebody who’s neurodiverse reduces stress. Sometimes it’s by mimicking some words or it’s by, Well, I do this with my hands. My daughter currently does this with her hair and the stim that a neurodiverse person does can change over time. So it’s not something that’s necessarily the same thing. Like one of the and I think one of the positive things about social media is that it’s reduced the stigma around neurodiversity where we no longer are thinking of Autism as Rainman. And we’ve realized that it could be people like you and me, right? And so understanding that a child who doesn’t do eye contact and flaps their arms when they’re happy isn’t what autism means. And that if you’ve seen one autistic person, you’ve seen one autistic person. So the idea is that autism is a spectrum and stimming and selective mutism. And there’s other really important symptoms of autism that that people who are autistic themselves are sharing online in this movement of nothing about us without us. So I think that’s one of the positive things about social media, is raising awareness that some of the struggles that people have had into their adulthood aren’t necessarily uncommon.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Thanks for helping clarify that. I know it’s becoming more talked about. There was a request for some clarification on when what I think I was referring to about hysteria that the journalism community could generate. And I think what I was referring to was just if if there’s news reports about a trend that amplify that trend. So like they often the news reports will report on it without really talking about how big the trend is. And it implies that it is huge and that it, like everyone on TikTok is doing it or everyone on Instagram is doing it when in reality it’s not that prevalent. And then schools need to step in and parents feel like they need to monitor when you that your child might not have heard about it or it’s just a handful. I don’t know if that’s been your experience as well, Pamela, but that was sort of what I meant. It sort of creates this illusion. 

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Yeah that that’s what we found. That’s what we found. We were looking at the news media reports as like our news media today is very much about the good news and sensationalizing, you know, with the Internet. Newspapers kind of lost their monetization model. And so journalists are struggling. And so one of the ways that they’re trying to combat that, that is by sharing this kind of juicy and enticing and fear based news. And there are some things that we can do to combat that. From a technical side, I’m in a Department of Computer Science and one of the current trends is large language models and open AI. So like, could we build frameworks that review some of these articles and and pinpoint language that could be toned down or fact checked using some automated tools? I think that would be a really great way, not just for the journalism community, but, as you said, for ed users who are now content creators to be able to to reflect on what they put out in the world before it’s shared.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Yeah. Thanks. And I think that’s a perfect example of if a parent does hear about a trend to just check in with their kid and say, Hey, have you heard about this X, Y, Z challenge? You know, And they may say, yes, they may say no or. And then you can kind of gauge whether you should probe further, I think. And that’s something even if you haven’t heard of a trend, that would be a good conversation starter with your with your young person just in general. Hey, have there been any trends that you’ve seen lately? What’s which ones are fun? Which ones you know are weird? So that that would be, I think, a good way to kind of keep tabs a little bit. All right. Another question that I had was, I think we’ve talked about some of the facilitators of this, these behaviors. But we’ve also I don’t know if we’ve really talked deeply about how social media is designed, really facilitate contagion in many ways because it’s so instantaneous and the tools are so easy, sharing is so easy. You’re getting affirmation through likes and and re shares. Is there anything you want to say about that and how social media has these affordances that have really amplified this effect? 

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] That is something that I think about a lot and the extent to which sort of, as I discussed, you have this ultra rapid perception of intimacy and cohesiveness in a group which what humans doesn’t want that especially adolescent human right. And so if the to get to get in the door is adopting a certain behavior, whether that’s trying a challenge or identifying with a particular illness that can be really alluring. There’s also the fact that as you’re looking at, you know, YouTube or TikTok, you’re going to be served on your for you page more things that are exactly what you have looked at. And so it can become a combination. The echo chamber filter bubble, where there is just this continuous reinforcement, especially of the more extreme or intense content and I’m not sure the extent to which an awareness of that might be helpful. But as part of media literacy, which should be taught in every school, by the way, letting young people know and sort of tapping into that natural adolescent rebelliousness, which I love, like, okay, the algorithm is feeding you this. What do you think about that?

 

[Vicki Harrison] What I know we’re we’re getting close to the end here, so I, I will just ask you, Andrea, for maybe your takeaways or like I’m also curious what the like the biggest research questions or needs that we have that are still unanswered as well as takeaways for parents, if you can share anything on those too.

 

[Dr. Andrea Giedinghagen] Two Absolutely So my takeaways would be don’t be afraid to know what your kid is doing online, what your young person is doing online. In fact, that can be a way of connecting really solidly, just like you want to know about their day, about their sports team, know about what they’re watching for 7 hours a day. Also, don’t be afraid if things are getting too intense to reach for professional help because there are that that’s necessary, 

 

[Vicki Harrison] Great. Pamela?

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] I think. Yeah, sorry about that. My internet’s going in and out.

 

[Vicki Harrison] That’s okay. We heard most and most of what you were saying up until that last part. We were just. Any parting thought you had on? I mean, you can answer the last question if you want, or just parting thoughts on what’s still needed and tips for parents too.

 

[Dr. Pamela Wisniewski] Yeah, I think one of the key takeaways for parents is to try to not approach your kid with fear and with judgment. Because what we’ve seen in talking to parents and teenagers, is that’s what shuts down the conversation when they feel like their parent is out of touch because they give them very kind of abstinence based advice. Just don’t do it at all. And everybody else is doing it. Or when they say, how dare you look at a video like that when it was something that just came across their newsfeed with no intention of their own. And that’s when we see kids get burner phones and go behind their parent’s back because they feel like the the mediation is too oppressive. There was a question earlier on happens when you try that more positive parenting approach and then you’re still getting problematic behaviors from your youth. Do take more restrictive actions, then I would say that that’s really up to the parents and to their family because I wouldn’t want to give parenting advice to somebody that I don’t know the context, but I think again, it shows the importance of doing early scaffolding. And instead of the common scenario that we hear from parents, is that they give their children open access to the and and then they take it away if they screw up. And that’s not really a positive developmental scaffolded approach of having your kids go online. If you do that, they will get into an accident in a crash. So making sure that you kind of open the Internet up to them in little doses so that they learn to manage the risks along the way, that’s a better approach.

 

[Vicki Harrison] Wonderful parting words and great advice. Thank. And we’re just about a time. So I want to thank both Pamela and Andrea and Thomas for sharing all of your great work with us today. And I’ll pass it back to Kris.

 

[Kris Perry] Thank you to our panelists for sharing your expertise is incredibly com complex issue and of course, thank you to our audience for tuning in and submitting your thoughtful questions. If you found this webinar helpful and have found value in what you have learned, please consider scanning the QR code on the screen and donating to support the Institute’s programs, including future episodes of Ask the experts. Our resources are made available entirely free to the public. Thanks to the support of generous donors like you. You can explore our research at Children screens dot org or follow us on all these platforms and subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on all new events and resources. Please join us for our next webinar, State of Play: The ins and outs of healthy and problematic video gaming at noon Eastern on Wednesday, March 20th. Thank you and be well.