5 Disorders Caused by the Internet, TV, Magazines and Movies


1. Truman Show Delusion

Until a studio light fell from the “sky” near his house, Truman Burbank lived a perfectly normal life. Then he found out that his entire life was spent on the set of a TV show, and everyone he ever knew was in on the ruse.

The movie The Truman Show came out in 1998, and by 2002 brothers Joel and Ian Gold (a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry, respectively) were meeting patients convinced that their lives were recorded and broadcast 24/7, and that everyone they’d ever known was in on it. One man, certain he was being fooled by crafty actors and elaborate sets, traveled to New York after 9/11 to see Ground Zero for himself. He’d assumed the attack was part of his show, and that seeing the towers standing would be his proof. Another sought asylum from his show in a Manhattan federal building.

Truman Show Delusion’s name didn’t come around until 2008, and was coined by the Gold brothers after a number of patients cited the movie as a direct parallel to their lives. Over 40 cases have been verified, mostly in white men ages 25-34.

2. Münchausen by Internet

Like Münchausen syndrome—wherein a person pretends to be ill, victimized in some way, or suffering from psychological trauma in order to get attention and sympathy from others—Münchausen by Internet is a patterned behavior of feigned illness, trauma or victimization carried out on the Internet. When the disorder was first identified in 2000, this took place mostly in chat rooms, forums or via IRC. Nowadays you’ll see it playing out via blogs and social media accounts, most famously in the case of 40-year-old Debbie Swenson.

For two years, Swenson blogged about her (fabricated) experiences as a 19-year-old girl with leukemia. “Kaycee Nicole” garnered a huge following, as did Swenson herself, who blogged separately as Kaycee’s mother. In 2001, when Swenson reported that Kaycee had died of an aneurysm, Kaycee’s followers became suspicious of Swenson, who refused cards and gifts and wouldn't divulge funeral details. After discovering piece by piece that Kaycee never existed, the fictional girl’s followers demanded an explanation; eventually Swenson admitted that she’d combined the stories of a few real cancer patients to build a believable character.

3. Conversion Disorder

Conversion disorder used to be called “mass hysteria,” and generally it occurs only in groups of people who spend a lot of time, or a significant moment in time, together. The symptoms—nervous tics, for example—appear to be neurological, but don’t have a neurological cause. In theory, it’s spread by unconscious mimicry of others with the symptoms, similar to the way one person’s yawn can make an entire roomful of coworkers yawn.

But a case of Tourette’s-like symptoms afflicting a dozen students in LeRoy, New York, is changing the way we define a “group.” After a few girls experienced tics, verbal outbursts and twitching, they began posting videos to YouTube to discuss the mystery illness befalling their town. Soon after, more students began exhibiting similar symptoms, and at least one researcher thinks the spread was facilitated by the use of social media. University at Buffalo neurology professor Dr. David Lichter told WKBW: "I think you do have the potential for people going online and witnessing other students' behavior, then I think this medium has the potential to spread it beyond the immediate environment." The girls’ case has been diagnosed as conversion disorder, but if it is actually spreading via YouTube, this will be the first documented case of conversion disorder spread via video.

4. Paris Syndrome

Ah, the City of Light. Everyone is model-gorgeous and well-dressed, there’s never more than a few feet between you and the nearest world-class boulangerie, and no matter where you go, there’s someone playing accordion.

Except that’s not how Paris is at all. Some unsuspecting tourists discover this the hard way, just before they experience depression, palpitations, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia and feelings of aggression, hostility and prejudice from others. Paris Syndrome is seen almost exclusively in Japanese tourists, a phenomenon the president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association links to highly idealized imagery of Paris in Japanese magazines.

The most likely contributing factor is the deep language barrier; few French nationals speak Japanese, and just as few Japanese tourists speak French. And even for the few who know both languages, idiomatic phrases and casual slang contribute to greater confusion. Add in a serious difference in cultural formality, jet lag, and the cognitive dissonance of the inexplicably absent accordion music, and you have the makings of a full-on anxiety attack. The Japanese embassy has instituted a 24-hour hotline for suffering travelers, and there’s even a short documentary on YouTube.

5. Mean World Syndrome

Watching the news can be a real downer, with wars and natural disasters and violent crime dominating the top stories. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that some people might be led to believe the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

One of the primary tenets of cultivation theory, the social theory under which Mean World Syndrome is defined, is that the more media a person is exposed to, the less like reality his or her perception of the world becomes. With long-term, cumulative exposure to news and popular media that depict a world vastly more violent and dangerous than the one in which we actually live, mass media “cultivates” a new reality in people’s minds—a mean one. The incidence of Mean World Syndrome has increased over time as access to various media forms has increased. The predominant symptom is agoraphobia, but generalized anxiety and interpersonal relationship and trust issues seem to also be related.

The three-statement Mean World Index is used to map a person’s perceptions of the real world against those who consume more or less television (or other media) by rating the statements on a false/sometimes/true scale:

Most people are just looking out for themselves * You can’t be too careful when dealing with people. * Most people would take advantage of you if they had the chance.

Careful and repeated studies show that those who watch more TV are more likely to report that people can’t be trusted or would be likely to turn on a friend if it served their interests.