TikTok may be spreading Tourettes-like tics among Gen Z, says new report

Recent research has revealed a ‘parallel pandemic' of unexplained tics in young people.

by Jenna Mahale
07 September 2021, 11:52am

According to a new report published by the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society, tic-like behaviours have been on the rise among young people since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with referrals for these rapid onset conditions increasing from 1-5 percent of total cases pre-pandemic to 20-35 percent of them currently.

“There have been striking commonalities in the phenomenology of these tic-like behaviors observed across our centers in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia,” wrote the researchers, describing a group of patients made up of 12 to 25-year-olds who were almost exclusively women and girls.

The rapid onset of these functional tic-like behaviours (FTLBs) apparently had a lot to do with the participants’ social media use, especially their newfound, pandemic-inspired TikTok addiction. As the report states: “Rapid onset of FTLBs occurred in all participants during the pandemic period (after 1 March 2020), and all endorsed exposure to influencers on social media (mainly TikTok) with tics or Tourette’s Syndrome.”

Later in the report, this connection was explored further: “In some cases, the patients specifically identified an association between these media exposures and the onset of symptoms… This exposure to tics or tic-like behaviours is a plausible trigger for the behaviors observed in at least some of these patients, based on a disease modeling mechanism.”

Out of the 20 patients with FTLBs, eight had “complex vocalizations consisting of the repetition of random words or phrases (eg. knock knock, woo hoo, beans); 11 of 20 engaged in the repetition of curse words, or obscene, offensive, or derogatory statements; 13 of 20 had complex arm/hand movements (clapping, pointing, sign language, or throwing objects); and 14 of 20 had complex behaviors in which they would hit or bang part of their body, other people (typically parents), or objects.”

“External factors like watching popular social media personalities' videos portraying tics or tic-like behaviors may have instilled a belief that ‘tics’ may catalyze peer acceptance or even popularity.” With the hashtag #ticdisorder at over 400 million views on TikTok, this insight might cause some worry. But as the report notes, “this specific social media exposure to tic-related videos was not reported in every patient treated at all the other centers, suggesting that it cannot be considered a prerequisite or necessary causative factor.” 

Of course, the role of coronavirus cannot be underestimated — though at this early stage, it is difficult to gauge the exact size of its impact. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major source of stress and anxiety for people globally, resulting in increased mental health symptoms and demand for mental health services,” the researchers wrote. “Increased social isolation and the widespread utilization of social media may have contributed as precipitating factors in a relevant proportion of these patients.”

As with many things, much more research is needed before any true conclusion can be reached, with the report noting that: “There is a need for systematic investigation of the relationship between symptom onset, severity and amount of social media exposure.”

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on social media.

mental health
Social Media