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'Body Electric' examines the connection between social media and depression rates


Last week we told you about the 41 states suing Meta for allegedly designing products that addict teens and worsen their mental health. Now, we hear a lot about researchers studying the psychological effects of time spent online, but what impact can this information overload and doomscrolling have on our physical health? TED Radio Hour host Manoush Zomorodi has been looking into this question for the latest episode in NPR's special series, Body Electric. Manoush, what have you found on this?

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Yeah. So, A, we have been hearing about the connection between social media and rising rates of depression and anxiety, especially in teenage girls, for years. So back in 2021, thousands of teens started showing Tourette's-like symptoms seemingly out of nowhere. One neurologist in Chicago, Caroline Olvera, told us that she was used to treating teenagers with tic disorders, but what she saw in her office this time was different.

CAROLINE OLVERA: What we started to see is women 18 to 19 come in with, like, an abrupt onset of tics that are very violent, very severe, that they had to go to the emergency room for.

ZOMORODI: So, A, teens tic-ing (ph) violently - this was happening all around the world. And equally mysteriously, within a few months, the symptoms went away nearly as quickly as they'd come on. Eventually, the outbreak was traced to a series of videos about verbal and physical tic-ing that were all over TikTok. And so it's not like contagious behavior is new. Experts sometimes refer to them as mass psychogenic illnesses, and they have been documented through the ages. There was the French dancing plague of 1518, in 1962 an epidemic of laughter in Tanzania. But this outbreak, thanks to social media, spread faster and further. And no surprise, those affected were mostly young women with a history of depression or anxiety.

MARTÍNEZ: Any idea why those teens and not others?

ZOMORODI: So researchers theorized that going through adolescence during a pandemic and spending lots of time online brewed up kind of the perfect storm. So there's lots of research being done more generally to try and understand mental health and its connection to the body. I spoke to psychiatrist and neuroscientist Sahib Khalsa at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla. He studies how people read the cues their body sends them, or what's called interoceptive awareness.

SAHIB KHALSA: So interoception is a process by which the nervous system senses, interprets and integrates information about the status of the interior of your body. So if I asked you to tell me are you breathing quickly or are you hungry, you could readily tune into your body and tell me what you were feeling.

ZOMORODI: But Sahib says some of us struggle to deal with all the sensations we feel when we go online - outrage, anger, sadness, shock, awe and wonder - to the point that Sahib says many of us feel physically bombarded.

KHALSA: So maybe somebody who feels everything intensely, maybe what they need to learn is how to kind of ignore or at least live with the sensation, realize that it's just a natural part of their body. It's not something to be feared.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what can we do to cope with all that noise in our lives?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So Sahib suggests that we all give ourselves a regular sensory reset. So if you can, for about 45 minutes, lie in a dark room with no music, no light, and just try to let your mind and your muscles relax as much as possible. And he says that doing this regularly is key to managing anxiety and information overload. I mean, A, we reboot our laptops every so often. Well, we humans need it too.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's Manoush Zomorodi, host of the TED Radio Hour and the special series Body Electric. And to hear more about the relationship between our technology and our bodies, go to the TED Radio Hour podcast feed, or Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.