More and more teenaged girls around the world have been showing up at doctors’ offices with tics since the start of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Doctors suspect that the social media app TikTok is one of the factors behind it.
Tics, or physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts, are movement disorders that had doctors stumped at first. Girls with tics are rare in general, but there’s an unusually high number of teen girls who suddenly developed the disorder recently.
After months of studying the patients and consulting with other specialists from top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K., doctors discovered that these girls had something in common: TikTok.
Doctors say that the girls had been watching videos of TikTok influencers who said they had Tourette syndrome, a nervous-system disorder that causes people to make repetitive and involuntary movements or sounds. While no one has tracked these cases nationally, pediatric movement-disorder centers across the U.S. are reporting an increasing number of teen girls who have experienced similar tics. (Related: Hypnosis Helps Reduce Symptoms of Tourette Syndrome.)
A neurologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who specializes in pediatric movement disorders and Tourette syndrome said that he has seen about 10 new cases of teens with tics a month since March 2020. Before the pandemic, his clinic has seen about one a month.
Specialists from other major institutions also reported similar cases, with Texas Children’s Hospital seeing approximately 60 teens with such tics since March 2020. Before that, they only saw one or two cases a year.
At the Johns Hopkins University Tourette’s Center, 10 to 20 percent of pediatric patients described having acute-onset tic-like behaviors – a significant increase from 2 to 3 percent a year before the pandemic.
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said it saw 20 patients with these tics from March to June this year, up from 10 the entire 2020.
Doctors say that most of these teens have already previously been diagnosed with anxiety or depression that was brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. Physical symptoms of psychological stress can manifest in ways that patients have seen in others. In most cases, they had witnessed the seizures of relatives with epilepsy.
Tic-like behaviors on TikTok
When doctors in the U.K began studying the phenomenon in January, they found plenty of tic-like behaviors that these teens can see on TikTok. Some of the videos contain #tourettes, which has about 4.8 billion views now.
In a separate study, researchers said that there had been reports of tic-like behaviors starting after watching videos on TikTok and YouTube “showing persons allegedly having Tourette syndrome.”
“However, many of these videos show movement and vocalizations not typically present in Tourette syndrome, including predominantly complex, variable and often continuous movements and elaborated and variable swearing and offensive phrases,” the authors said.
When data was analyzed, patients were found to have a primary tic disorder and some were found to have rapid onset “functional tic-like behaviors” or FTLBs. Of the 20 patients exhibiting FTLB symptoms, 17 had no previous history of tics, while three had mild simple tics earlier in childhood.
The patients exhibited symptoms ranging from the repetition of random words, curse words or even obscene, offensive or derogatory statements. Others had complex hand and arm movements such as clapping, pointing or throwing objects. Others also exhibited behavioral issues such as hitting or banging parts of their body, other people or objects.
“The safety and well-being of our community is our priority, and we’re consulting with industry experts to better understand this specific experience,” a representative from TikTok said.
Some doctors say that while the number of patients they are seeing is much higher than before, it isn’t necessarily an epidemic.
“There are some kids who watch social media and develop tics and some who don’t have any access to social media and develop tics. I think there are a lot of contributing factors, including anxiety, depression and stress,” Dr. Joseph McGuire from Johns Hopkins said.
Many doctors also question the stated diagnoses of some Tourette TikTokers and say that the behaviors of these mostly female influencers don’t look like Tourette syndrome to them. The condition affects far more boys than girls and tends to develop gradually over time from a young age. The tics can also be treated with medication.
Despite the TikToker’s claims, Dr. Donald Gilbert from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center said that the symptoms of teens who watched them are real and likely represent functional neurological disorders, which are afflictions that include vocal tics and abnormal body movements not tied to underlying diseases.
To unlearn these tics, cognitive behavioral therapy may be needed. Staying off TikTok can help, too.
Read more about Tourette syndrome and other neurological conditions at Health.news.