You are what content you consume?
Physicians at hospitals all over the world are reporting a bizarre phenomenon that’s seen a rapid rise in teenage girls developing tics — physical twitches — which doctors believe may have been derived from TikTok.
Months of study leads doctors to believe TikTok trends and pandemic boredom to be the source — via Tourette syndrome influencers on the platform. Indeed, with hashtags such as #tourettes and #tourettesyndrome, the trend has amassed an alarming 6.2 billion views on the platform as of Wednesday afternoon.
Research is now underway in the US to discover the underlying cause of the rise in Tourette-like cases, including one recent article by a team of Chicago-based doctors published in the journal Movement Disorders, with the disturbing title “TikTok Tics: A Pandemic Within a Pandemic.”
Tourette syndrome (commonly misspelled as “Tourettes”) is a nervous system disorder that causes repeated, uncontrolled movements, such as blinking and seizure-like jerks, or noisy outbursts.
The Wall Street Journal has confirmed an uptick in tics across several US hospitals. At Texas Children’s Hospital, the caseload for patients with tics was just one or two per year prior to the pandemic. That rate has since multiplied by a few dozen, now up to 60 patients reporting tics since March 2020. Similarly, Johns Hopkins University Tourette’s Center saw 10% to 20% of its pediatric patients arrive with these symptoms during the past year, whereas the typical rate prior to the pandemic was just 2% to 3% annually. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago doubled their annual rate of patients reporting tics, from 10 in one year to 20 in the next.
Neurologist Donald Gilbert, a specialist in pediatric movement disorders at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told the WSJ that he has seen some 10 new patients — teens with tics — every month for the past approximately 18 months. Prior to March 2020, he saw just one such patient every 30 days.
Anxiety and depression wrought by COVID-19 safety restrictions may have contributed to the alarming trend — just one of myriad dangerous results of rampant TikTok challenges — as stress is known to manifest as physical symptoms, doctors who spoke to the outlet agreed. Previous studies support the psychological origins of inexplicable clusters of people with tic-like disorders.
“Some kids have pulled out their phones and showed me their TikTok, and it’s full of these Tourette cooking and alphabet challenges,” said Texas Children’s’ Dr. Mariam Hull, who co-authored “Tics and TikTok: Functional Tics Spread Through Social Media,” also published in the Movement Disorders journal.
A TikTok spokeswoman told the WSJ that users’ safety is their “priority,” and are “consulting” with “industry experts” to learn more about the issue.
Meanwhile, the event has not risen to epidemic levels yet, doctors have said.
“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 Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Joseph McGuire.
Some doctors are even more incredulous that some Tourette influencers on TikTok “don’t look like Tourette syndrome to them,” wrote the WSJ. The fact that most of them are women is a sticking point, as the disorder is known to affect far more men. Moreover, the condition, and its tics, can be greatly mitigated with medication.
But the experience of those who come to clinics with these symptoms is genuine, said Dr. Gilbert, indicating a functional neurological disorder, even if not technically Tourette syndrome. Cognitive behavioral therapy could help these patients unlearn the habit — as well as staying off TikTok.