Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, teenage girls around the world have reportedly been showing up at doctors’ offices with newly developed tics — physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts — which doctors believe could be caused by the Chinese-owned social media app, TikTok.
Movement-disorder doctors were confused at first, as girls with tics are rare, but teens nonetheless have suddenly developed an unusually high number of them, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
After months of studying patients and consulting with one another, specialists at top pediatric hospitals in America, Canada, Australia, and the UK suspected TikTok — the girls had been watching videos on the social media platform of people suffering from Tourette syndrome.
Recent medical journal articles also say that doctors believe the girls have been watching videos of TikTok influencers who say they have Tourette syndrome, the report adds.
While the cases have not been tracked nationally, pediatric movement-disorder centers across the country are reporting an influx of teenage girls with similar tics.
At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, for example, neurologist Donald Gilbert — who specializes in pediatric movement disorders and Tourette syndrome — says that since March 2020, he has seen about ten new teens with tics each month. Gilbert noted that before then, his clinic had seen, at most, one per month.
And Gilbert is not alone in his observation, as other major institutions have also reported similar surges, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Texas Children’s Hospital has reported seeing about 60 teens with these tics since March 2020, adding that doctors used to see one or two cases per year.
Johns Hopkins University associate professor Joseph McGuire, who works in the university’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, says the school’s Tourette’s Center has seen 10-20 percent of pediatric patients describing acute-onset tic-like behaviors, which is up from 2-3 percent for previous years.
And the Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center says it has seen 20 patients with these tics just between March and June this year. Last year, the medical center only saw 10 for the entire year.
Doctors also noted that most of the teenagers experiencing this onset of tics have previously diagnosed anxiety or depression that was likely brought on or worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. Gilbert added that physical symptoms of psychological stress can and do manifest in ways that patients have seen in others.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of tic-like behavior that one can view on TikTok.
In January, videos with the hashtag #tourettes reportedly had about 1.25 billion views, according to U.K. doctors, who add the number has since grown to 4.8 billion.
Many doctors also question the accuracy of TikTok users who claim to have Tourette’s, pointing out that behaviors exhibited in videos created by these — mostly female — influencers don’t look like Tourette syndrome, which affects far more boys than girls, and usually develops gradually over time from a young age.
Gilbert, however, said the symptoms of the teens who have watched the videos are real, and likely represent functional neurological disorders.
Functional neurologic disorder (FND) refers to a group of common neurological movement disorders caused by an abnormality in how the brain functions, which aren’t tied to an underlying disease, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Neurologist Sigmund Freud had believed FND was a “conversion disorder,” because it was thought to be a psychological disorder that converted into a neurological one.
Doctors say the tics can be unlearned, and recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as staying off TikTok for several weeks.
“The safety and well-being of our community is our priority, and we’re consulting with industry experts to better understand this specific experience,” a TikTok spokeswoman said.