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In recent months, speculation surrounding a significant increase among the number of teenage girls reporting the occurrence of Tourette’s-like symptoms has emerged. Concerned parents of children who are experiencing the onset of tics have sought the help of medical professionals. Surprisingly, these medical professionals have suggested that there appears to be a possible link between the onset of symptoms among these teenage girls and their use of the social media app called TikTok. It has been well documented that social media poses inherent risks and various pitfalls for kids. Dr. Bennett believes that preparing tweens and teens to navigate these problems before they arise by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills is the key to avoiding digital injury. That is why we created the Social Media Readiness Course, designed to empower families to promote safe and responsible practices while avoiding harmful outcomes.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media and video-sharing platform/app that is primarily marketed to kids and teens. Since its launch in 2016, it has become one of the most popular social media sites, attracting over 1 billion monthly users. TikTok is so popular among today’s kids and teens that it has become a part of the cultural zeitgeist. The social media app has also been the focus of several significant controversies. You can read about some of these stories in other GKIS blog articles here and here.

Tourette Syndrome vs. Functional Tic Disorder

Tourette Syndrome

Tourette Syndrome aka Tourette’s is a type of neurological disorder that involves the occurrence of uncontrollable movements and unwanted verbal outbursts referred to as tics.

Tourette Syndrome is typically diagnosed in children between the ages of 7 and 10, but symptoms can occur as early 2 years old or as late as 15 years old. Historically, boys are 3-4 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than girls. Individuals with Tourette Syndrome reportedly benefit from treatments that include medication and psychological therapy.[1]

Functional Tic Disorder

Functional Tic Disorder is also a type of neurological disorder. It is characterized by issues with voluntary movement rather than automatic movement.

People with Functional Tic Disorder often experience the interruption of voluntary movements and vocalizations with uncontrollable tics. This disorder is diagnosed later in life than Tourette Syndrome, typically around 18 years old, and occurs more often in women than in men. Individuals with Functional Tic Disorder reportedly benefit from psychological therapy and do not respond to medication.[2]

Tics

The word tic is used to describe a vast array of symptoms that include sudden and repetitive twitches, jolts, and sounds or even complex motor movements and combinations of words. Tics range in severity from symptoms like repetitive eye-blinking, shoulder shrugs, or throat-clearing to more severe and even violent symptoms like punching, hair-pulling, or shouting obscene language.[3].

According to research, Tic Disorders appear to be somewhat heritable. Additionally, the tics seen in Tourette’s and Functional Tic Disorder share several similarities including appearance, suggestibility, distractibility, and increases during periods of stress and anxiety.[4]

Is TikTok really causing tic disorders among teen girls?

As previously mentioned, Tic Disorders like Tourette Syndrome are much more common in boys than in girls. So, many experts were surprised when a recent surge in teenage girls reporting the sudden onset of uncontrollable tics began seeking their help. After conducting extensive medical interviews, doctors started noticing that the patients all shared a common interest in watching Tourette-Syndrome-related content prior to the onset of their tics.

TikTok videos featuring the tag #tourettes have been viewed billions of times, with content creators offering a glimpse into how they navigate their daily lives with the disorder. Some Tourette’s-centered users have millions of followers.[5]

According to research, the number of cases linked to social media has jumped significantly. Interestingly, researchers studying this phenomenon have noticed a “phenomenological similarity” between the tics/tic-like behavior depicted on social media platforms like TikTok and the tic-like behavior demonstrated by this group of patients.[6]

The Role of the Pandemic

Many experts have also claimed that despite the correlation between TikTok use and the onset of symptoms, the true underlying cause is more complex. Research shows that stress and anxiety levels among kids and teens have drastically increased since the start of the pandemic. Since stress and anxiety levels play a significant role in the occurrence and severity of tics related to Tourette’s and other tic disorders, experts suggest that they are likely also playing a significant role in the recent surge of cases.[6]

Additionally, researchers have posited that increased social isolation, the widespread use of social media as an outlet for peer socialization, and consistent exposure to popular Tourette’s-themed TikTok content have primed some of these patients to believe that exhibiting “tics” may serve as a means of peer acceptance and popularity.[6] The similarities between the tics depicted on TikTok and the tics demonstrated in these new cases coupled with this theory regarding a desire for peer acceptance suggest that many of these teens might simply be manufacturing their symptoms. However, more research is needed to determine if a causal link between social media use and the onset of tic disorders truly exists and to what extent the pandemic plays a role in this phenomenon.

Treatment

Further evidence that points to the possible role of TikTok in the development of these new cases include how the patients have been treated. Behavioral treatment plans including personalized psychoeducation strategies that include avoiding triggering exposure to tic-related social media content have been successful. In many cases, patients were encouraged to refrain from using the app for several weeks and instead engage in physical activities that get the mind and body working together. Many of these patients experienced a significant reduction or a complete elimination of the uncontrollable tics that impacted them.[6]

What Parents Can Do

The most important thing that parents can do is be aware of the potential risks and promote an environment of open communication with your children. Dr. B offers a comprehensive family program for fostering this kind of communication in her Screen Safety Essentials Course. With this course, your family will learn tons of information about how to create a safer screen home environment while also connecting and having fun as a family. Armed with the right tools, you and your family can learn how to better thrive in today’s digital era.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Mackenzie Morrow for researching the role of social media apps among the rise of tic-related disorders and co-authoring this article.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

Photos Credited

Photo By Julia M Cameron (https://www.pexels.com/search/selfie/)

Photo By Dhyamis Kleber (https://www.pexels.com/search/movement/)

Photo By MART PRODUCTION (https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-sitting-on-floor-with-arms-around-knees-7277897/)

 

Works Cited

[1] Cedars Sinai. (2021). Tourette Syndrome. Cedars Sanai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/t/tourette-syndrome.html#:~:text=The%20first%20signs%20of%20Tourette,considered%20symptoms%20of%20Tourette%20syndrome.

[2] Hedderly, T. (2022). Functional Tics. FND Guide. https://www.neurosymptoms.org/en_US/symptoms/fnd-symptoms/functional-tics/#:~:text=Tourette%20syndrome%20is%20a%20condition,Functional%20Neurological%20Disorder%20(FND).

[3] Benaroya-Milshtein, N., Shmuel-Baruch, S., Apter, A., Valevski, A., Fenig, S., & Steinberg, T. (2020). Aggressive symptoms in children with tic disorders. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 29(5), 617–624. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-019-01386-6

[4] Tourette Association of America. (2021). Rising incidence of functional tic-like behaviors. Tourette Association of America. https://tourette.org/rising-incidence-of-functional-tic-like-behaviors/#:~:text=Functional%20Neurological%20Disorder%20and%20the,worsening%20in%20times%20of%20stress.

[5] Stokel-Walker, C. (2021). The complicated truth about tiktok and tourette’s syndrome. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/tiktok-tourettes

[6] Pringsheim, T., Ganos, C., McGuire, J. F., Hedderly, T., Woods, D., Gilbert, D. L., Piacentini, J., Dale, R. C., & Martino, D. (2021). Rapid Onset Functional Tic-Like Behaviors in Young Females During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Movement disorders: official journal of the Movement Disorder Society36(12), 2707–2713. https://doi.org/10.1002/mds.28778

Mackenzie Morrow
Mackenzie Morrow
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