Teens with ADHD

TikTok Tics: What’s Causing a Surge in Tic Disorders Among Teens?

Some experts blame social media for triggering or contributing to a new onset of tic-like symptoms in teens. What does the evidence say?

Teen girl looks at cell phone

When emergency room visits for tic disorders tripled among adolescent girls during the pandemic, the medical community got worried. Was this yet more mental-health fallout from COVID? Was social media partly to blame?

Since 2020, a record number of teens with dramatic and unusual displays of tic disorders — exaggerated jerky movements and verbal outbursts — have flooded into emergency departments and clinicians’ offices seeking immediate treatment. In many cases, the young patients had never been diagnosed with tic disorders, such as Tourette disorder.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) observed this concerning trend based on documented emergency department visits by children seeking treatment for tic disorders. In 2021 and the beginning of 2022, there were more emergency department visits among adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 than there were in 2019. For girls in this age group, the proportion of emergency department visits for tic disorders tripled. Emergency department visits declined for tic disorders in boys in this age group.

Tics, Explained

Tics are sudden and uncontrollable twitches, movements, or sounds that people do repeatedly. A person with a motor tic might keep blinking over and over. A person with a vocal tic might make a grunting sound.

Occasional tics are common, but when tics persist, this could be a sign of a tic disorder. A child might be diagnosed with Tourette disorder if two or more motor tics, and at least one vocal tic, are displayed for at least a year.

[Symptom Test: Signs of Tic Disorders in Children]

ADHD and Tics

Tic disorders are linked to the brain and nervous system. Children with ADHD are more likely than other children to be diagnosed with tic disorders. Co-occurring conditions include obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and learning or developmental disorders. Tic disorders typically occur more often in boys, according to the CDC.

Sometimes, children show behaviors that look like tics but are not typical, according to the CDC. For example, some children develop elaborate motor and vocal tic-like behaviors for the first time, with no reported history of tics. This can happen in groups of children, such as school classmates. Atypical tics tend to be more common among teenagers for underlying reasons that include anxiety, stress, and through exposure to social media posts.

TikTok’s Troubling Influence

Some experts blame social media, in part, for the recent increase in tic disorders among teens with underlying vulnerabilities, though evidence is largely anecdotal. According to the journal Movement Disorders, new-onset tic-like behaviors have increased markedly among adolescents and young adults — and researchers say that many of these patients reported abrupt, uncontrollable, and sometimes severe behaviors after watching videos of people with movement disorders on TikTok and YouTube in particular.

[Read: What Tic Disorders Looks Like in Children and Adults]

Videos on TikTok with the hashtag #tourettes have recorded more than 4 billion views. Researchers believe this phenomenon could be an “example of behaviors, emotions, or conditions spreading spontaneously through a group,” the journal reported.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tic Disorders and TikTok: Next Steps

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