The Girls Who Caught Tourette’s from TikTok

October 7, 2021

Neurologists have observed a strange malady that appears to be spread by social media.

There has been a surge in young women exhibiting Tourette’s-like tics during the pandemic.

This outbreak of tics highlights the power of social influencers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a surge in the number of adolescent girls and young women presenting to neurology clinics with Tourette’s-like symptoms (Müller-Vahl et al., 2021).

Many of the victims had been incorrectly diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome prior to being seen and were being treated with medication. Tourette’s is a neurological disorder that is typified by involuntary tics and the blurting out of offensive words and sounds. Neurologists were able to quickly determine that the subjects were not suffering from Tourette’s, but psychogenic tics driven by anxiety.

They refer to this condition as a Functional Movement Disorder, which is commonly associated with psychological stress.

The sudden appearance of tics in young women and girls may resemble Tourette’s, but it is distinctly different. For instance, Tourette’s usually begins in childhood, presents in a waxing/waning fashion over years, and is about four times more common in males. The onset of tics in the young women was sudden and explosive with a rapid progression of motor and vocal tics. Motor tics are involuntary muscle contractions while vocal tics involve the involuntary uttering of sounds.

The power of social media to spread contagion

A consensus has emerged among neurologists that social media has played a pivotal role in the outbreak, with some researchers referring to the surge in cases as the “TikTok Tics.

“Many of their patients reported that prior to the sudden onset of tics, they had been watching and sharing videos of social influencers claiming to be suffering from Tourette’s. During the pandemic, videos of people with Tourette’s, or claiming to be experiencing the condition, have gained an enormous following on social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube.

London-based psychiatrist Dr. Isobel Heyman has been at the coalface of the surge and reports that many of her patients appear to “gain peer support, recognition and a sense of belonging” from being exposed to social influencers claiming to have Tourette’s. She is convinced that the tics are being reinforced and maintained by the online attention that those exhibiting the tics are receiving (Heyman et al., 2021).

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