A recent report revealed that a rising number of teenage girls are experiencing physical tics, a phenomenon that some doctors are saying could come from their use of social media apps like TikTok.
Girls around the world were arriving at doctors’ offices with “physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts,” per The Wall Street Journal. While doctors were initially confused, “experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common: TikTok.”
As The Wall Street Journal reported, according to medical journal articles, physicians noted that the girls had been looking at videos of influencers on TikTok who claimed to have Tourette syndrome, a condition of the nervous system which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “causes people to have ‘tics.’”
“Tics are sudden twitches, movements, or sounds that people do repeatedly. People who have tics cannot stop their body from doing these things. For example, a person might keep blinking over and over. Or, a person might make a grunting sound unwillingly,” the CDC noted.
The increase seemed to coincide with the beginning of the pandemic, and pediatric movement-disorder facilities around the United States have also stated they’ve seen a flood of teenage girls with similar symptoms.
The Journal reported on the findings of various centers:
Donald Gilbert, a neurologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who specializes in pediatric movement disorders and Tourette syndrome, has seen about 10 new teens with tics a month since March 2020. Before the pandemic, his clinic had seen at most one a month.
Specialists at other major institutions have also reported similar surges. Since March 2020, Texas Children’s Hospital has reported seeing approximately 60 teens with such tics, whereas doctors there saw one or two cases a year before the pandemic. At the Johns Hopkins University Tourette’s Center, 10% to 20% of pediatric patients have described acute-onset tic-like behaviors, up from 2% to 3% a year before the pandemic, according to Joseph McGuire, an associate professor in the university’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Between March and June this year, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said it saw 20 patients with these tics, up from 10 the full year before.
Physicians note that many of the teenagers had been previously diagnosed with depression or anxiety that was either a result of or made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Others aren’t rushing to look at TikTok as a reason for the increase and reportedly pushed back on the idea that the issue should be labeled 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,” said Dr. McGuire. “I think there are a lot of contributing factors, including anxiety, depression and stress.”
Some physicians aren’t confident that the TikTok influencers who purportedly have Tourettes have been diagnosed or diagnosed credibly, either, due to the fact that some of the actions shown in their posts aren’t entirely consistent with Tourette syndrome.
The issue expands to the influencers who claim to have Tourette syndrome, as well; one doctor “found that 19 of the 28 most-followed Tourette influencers on TikTok reported developing new tics as a result of watching other creators’ videos,” the Journal added.
This type of phenomenon has existed before, but it is typically limited to a physical location. The Journal pointed to “a famous case a decade ago in which several teens in upstate New York developed tics that were diagnosed as ‘mass psychogenic illness.’”
Recent research shows that social media might allow this to expand more rapidly.
A paper written by two physicians from the Pediatric Movement Disorders Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital revealed the potential connection between social media use and such disorders.
They wrote, “Functional movement disorder is a subtype of functional neurologic symptom disorder a syndrome of involuntary physical, neurologic-type symptoms that are incongruous with ‘organic’ disease.”
“Throughout history, there have been outbreaks of functional symptoms in communities; until recently, spread had been confined to groups of people who shared a physical location. However, in the era of social media, a new mode of dissemination may have arisen,” the researchers noted.
They concluded, “Our series suggests that social media may contribute to the spread of functional neurologic symptom disorder, in a way previously requiring physical proximity.”
A TikTok spokeswoman reportedly said, “The safety and well-being of our community is our priority, and we’re consulting with industry experts to better understand this specific experience.”
The Journal noted that, among other actions, “[t]o unlearn these tics, doctors recommend cognitive behavioral therapy and tell patients to stay off TikTok for several weeks.”