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Tics & TikTok

Tics & TikTok: Social Media-Induced Tourettes

Early 2020 saw an increase in hospital visits, the majority of them being teen girls brought in for assessment and diagnosis by their worried parents. All of the young girls had something in common – uncontrollable, repetitive jerking movements, twitches, and sounds that popped out of nowhere.

Known predominantly as tics, this sudden occurrence of a widespread involuntary movement disorder raised suspicions and a possible link with a neurological disorder called Tourette’s Syndrome. As surprising and shocking as it may seem, Tik Tok, a viral-video making and sharing app was held responsible for influencing these tics.

Can a social media app be held responsible for provoking mass hysteria? Or is it mass awareness that has led teens to recognize their symptoms by watching videos of people suffering from tics? Pediatricians and child psychologists from all across the world came forward to address these troubling questions – and we are intrigued. 

Are Tics the Same as Tourette’s Syndrome?

What Are Tics? 

Prevalent in younger boys, commonly ranging from 5 to 7 years of age, ‘tics’ are unintentional movements of the body that are caused by sudden and repetitive contractions of muscles. Characterized by nose-twitching, shoulder-shrugging, and eye-blinking movements, tics also involve uncontrollable vocal responses that are either obscene or make no sense at all.

Apart from being unintentional, motor and vocal tics are also short-lived and can lead to functional impairment if severe. Tics are, however, also considered involuntary by many, as they can be suppressed but only for a limited period of time. Suppression might lead to an exaggeration of tics, thus resulting in distress that can only be relieved by acting them out.

What is Tourette’s Syndrome? 

Primary tic disorders can be transient such as they might stick around for a year, or chronic if they last longer. Transient tics, however, affect around 20% of school-going children, whereas chronic tics usually affect those who are in their late teens. 

Tourette’s Syndrome’ is a primary tic disorder that is characterized by frequent and unintentional motor movements and vocal outbursts. TS ranges in complexity and severity, causing symptoms to fluctuate from patient to patient. 

Tourette’s is highly common in boys and usually begins during the early stages of childhood. Motor tics are more common than vocal tics and are usually diagnosed by the age of 4 – 6 years. However, Tourette’s usually worsens by age 10 – 12 years and can be accompanied by other mental health illnesses, predominantly ADHD. 

Many attribute Tourette’s to be a consequence of environmental factors such as stress, fatigue, and sleep deprivation. With plausible genetic factors in play, many suggest Tourette’s be linked with prenatal stress caused by smoking, mental fatigue, or infections during pregnancy. With prompt diagnosis and treatment involving psychotherapy and lifestyle modifications, many people acquire remission by the age of 20 – 21 years.

Putting the Tic in TikTok

Tik Tok also saw a rise in therapists and doctors who began creating videos for short laughs or awareness about diseases. Many doctors came together to raise awareness regarding COVID-19, giving people a means to absorb content that is short and hardly saturating. 

Similarly, mental illnesses gained momentum during the pandemic – on the app as well as globally. Due to the viral outbreak in 2020, many people reported depression and anxiety disorders, mainly due to financial instability and isolation. Due to this lack of connection with other humans, many people considered smartphones as their number one sanctuary for entertainment and awareness. 

Tourette’s syndrome is one disease that reached the TikToks of young teen girls globally. Given that Tourette’s affects 1 girl for every 3-to 4 boys, many doctors ‘shunned’ the sudden rise in TS in girls and blamed it on social media. Girls with TikTok tics reported 29 repetitive spasms in a minute, with severity leading to self-harm and the frequent use of obscene language. 

While Tik Tok can be considered as the perpetrator of a mass sociogenic illness as per a paper published in August 2021 (Kirsten R Muller-Vahl, et al), is it really okay to be ableist to the girls who are presumably suffering? This paper received severe backlash from another group of researchers on behavioral and psychiatric disorders who called the preceding argument ‘ableist.’

The first paper raised an argument that led to the popular belief that teen girls were seeking ‘attention on social media by faking Tourette’s’. This argument is not only stigmatizing, it is also causing the community to invalidate the supposedly ‘fake’ symptoms of these children.

The argument raised in an editorial by Christine Cornelia and their team of academic researchers pointed toward the ableist attitude of doctors who undermined the symptoms of young girls with tics. While it is true that symptoms of TS are similar to that of transient tics, the diagnosis of Tourette’s still can not be ruled out. 

While tics are known to cause significant discomfort, awareness raised by Touretters on Tik Tok might have helped the teens recognize their symptoms. Plus, as Tourette’s is aggravated by stress and fatigue, the ongoing stress due to the pandemic can be one of the reasons why tics were an expressive outlet for the kids. 

The Final Verdict

Whether or not Tik Tok is responsible for influencing tics in young girls still needs proper coverage and authentic scientific reasons for support. Whether or not this behavior is a plight for attention, invalidating the symptoms of younger kids might cause them to become more stressed. The pandemic has already engulfed many households in distress; perhaps it is time to look at TikTok tics with more compassion.

If you or your loved one is suffering from Tourette’s or experiencing tics or spasms that mimic that of TS, consult a primary care physician or a neurologist.
At Manhattan Medical Arts, we are dedicated to providing you with the best healthcare services. Book an appointment with our neurologist today and get more insight into your symptoms. 

– Disclaimer –
This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 02/28/2022

Learn more about our editorial process.

  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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