Tics are more common in young boys than in teenage girls. So, healthcare professionals around the world were surprised and puzzled when the pandemic began and teenage girls began to come in droves to report the sudden onset of uncontrollable physical and verbal tics.
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The tics mimic those seen in Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable vocal movements and sounds. But Tourette, which is relatively rare, is four times more common in boys than in girls and typically presents between the ages of 5 and 7.
So why the sudden increase in the number of teenage girls with Tourette-like symptoms? Pediatric neurologist Mohammed Aldosari, MD, talks about this puzzling data, including the role of social media platform TikTok and what parents can do.
An increase in teenage girls with Tourette-type tics
Throughout the pandemic, doctors began to see more and more teenage girls experiencing sudden onset of verbal and motor tics. They were shouting the same phrases over and over again, seemingly at random, and displayed jerky or restless movements.
As doctors from all over the world began to communicate with each other, they realized that they were all seeing the same thing – all over the world.
“Initially, everyone thought they were seeing an isolated phenomenon,” says Dr Aldosari, “but it turns out we all see it – a different age of onset and, worryingly, an explosive start. Within hours, maybe a day or two, girls who don’t have a history of tics suddenly start to feel a lot of movement and vocalization.
Many teens report being withdrawn from school classes for being disruptive, due to their inability to control their tics. One study found that these sudden-onset tics were “overall severe and frequent,” occurring about 29 times per minute.
Before the pandemic, the sudden onset of unexplained tics accounted for only about 1% of total tics cases. A study from August 2021 shows that they now represent up to 35% of cases.
TikTok: what teens do
Globally, doctors were seeing teens with sudden tics shouting the exact same sentences and feeling the same uncontrolled movements:
- Repeating seemingly random words or phrases, including “beans”, “woo-hoo” and “flying shark”.
- Repeating swear words and other obscene phrases.
- Hand / arm movements including clapping and pointing.
- Hitting or banging body parts, other people or objects.
The similarities of tics – especially given the geographic distance of patients – gave doctors their first clue that social media was behind the phenomenon. This is because the real tics of Gilles de la Tourette syndrome are unique to each person, and are not so overwhelmingly alike.
“When we noticed that we were all attending similar presentations, it was the first alarm that it was not Tourette’s,” says Aldosari. “
It turns out that these tics are specific to a few content creators on TikTok – people with Tourette syndrome whose videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times.
Why teens develop tics during the pandemic
Adolescents who suffer from sudden tics do not have Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, says Dr. Aldosari, although the behavior appears to be similar. On the contrary, studies show they suffer from a movement disorder caused by stress and anxiety – likely made worse by the pandemic and increased use of social media by adolescents.
“These tics are a complex way for the brain to release overwhelming stress,” says Dr Aldosari. “Essentially, their brain is expressing an emotional stressor like a physical disorder. “
Adolescents who are prone to depression and anxiety are the most likely to develop this disease. And teenage girls are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than teenage boys, which may explain the increase in teenage tics, in particular.
“Boys are usually the ones with typical tics,” says Dr Aldosari, “but anxiety is more prevalent in girls, and girls may be more likely to be affected by influencers, for better or for the better. the worst, before and during the pandemic. All of this is, I think, the reason we are seeing this happening more in girls. “
Are they making it up?
Although the tics of these adolescents are not indicative of Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, they are still very real and very disturbing, says Dr Aldosari. If you are the parent of a teenager who experiences these tics, check your tendency to attribute them to drama or deliberate imitation.
“These adolescents do not intend to engage in tic-like behaviors, so they become anxious when their families or healthcare professionals reject or even question them,” says Dr Aldosari. “The worst message they can get is that they are pretending. “
What to do for teens with sudden tics
Dr Aldosari says adolescent patients (and their families) will likely be reassured knowing that this is now a known medical issue and that there is nothing physically wrong with their brains.
“Now we can say that this has been seen before and this is your brain’s response when it is under extreme stress and overwhelmed,” he says. “And then most of those kids would benefit from behavior therapy.”
While people with Tourette’s syndrome frequently benefit from using medication when behavior therapy alone isn’t helpful, Dr Aldosari says teens with TikTok-induced tics will benefit more from therapy.
Of course, it may take some time for the therapy to work its magic and for patients to begin to feel its impact. But with time, care, and attention, teens can learn to deal with and cope with their stress – and with it, manage and cope with their tics.
Can Tics Induced By TikTok Be Prevented?
“When it comes to social media, this should be a wake-up call to all of us,” Dr Aldosari said.
Responsible digital consumption is the key. Whether your child hasn’t started using social media yet or is spending a lot of time on it, now discuss the risks of being too online – not just tics, but everything from self-esteem issues to problems. sleep.
“Do your best to be careful about how you introduce social media, what sites your child uses and who they follow, and their overall exposure to social media,” says Dr Aldosari. “Children who are anxious or strongly influenced by others may need more guidance and moderation up front – before they get to this point.”