Neurologists are reporting that the majority of teenagers who began experiencing strange tics after watching TikTok videos during the pandemic are recovering.
Since 2020, doctors have been treating thousands of teens for sudden, explosive tics with no known biological cause that they believe are linked to popular TikTok videos of individuals claiming to have Tourette’s syndrome. According to a recent New York Times article, the neurologists treating the new cohort of “functional disorders” say that the majority of cases have resolved on their own.
“Adolescence is a period of rapid social and emotional development,” neurologist Dr. Tamara Pringsheim told the New York Times. “They are like sponges, grabbing onto new skills to cope.”
This phenomenon, known as “TikTok tics,” is considered by medical experts to be one of the most prominent modern examples of mass psychogenic illness, a condition in which groups of people experience similar symptoms without a clear medical explanation. Similar outbreaks have occurred for centuries and can spread rapidly in small communities.
Clusters of sudden symptoms can also occur among groups, which usually reflect shared stressors among group members. In the Middle Ages, nuns in a French convent began meowing like cats due to fears of possession by the devil. Similarly, in the 2000s, hundreds of children of asylum seekers in Sweden became mute and bedridden for prolonged periods of time.
When discussing the TikTok tics, neurologists often mention Le Roy, a small town in western New York. In 2011, a cheerleader at the local high school began to experience spasms; then, her best friend started to snap her head. Within a few weeks, the tics had spread throughout the school’s social hierarchy, affecting 18 girls, one boy, and one adult woman. Although the national news media speculated about toxins or viruses contaminating Le Roy, the neurologists who treated the affected individuals knew that many had experienced trauma or serious illnesses in their families.
The TikTok tics arrived during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, a period when many teenagers were home from school, feeling anxious and isolated, and relying on social media as their primary way to communicate with others.
Teens began to emulate the TikTok creators by repeating identical words, such as “beans” and “beetroot,” and performing similar gestures like pounding their chests. TikTok videos under the hashtag #Tourettes have been viewed 7.7 billion times. As a result, pediatric movement disorder clinics saw an increase in patients, causing wait times to extend from three months to one year. Dr. Pringsheim described the influx of patients as “an avalanche.”
Neurologists call them functional tics, or functional tic-like behavior, as they appear to start out of nowhere, and “functional” in medicine refers to “no known physical cause.” Functional tics differ from Tourettes, a nervous system disorder with a known physical cause characterized by unwanted repetitive movements and sounds that usually begin in childhood. Tics can arise by imitating others with tics, similar to the phenomenon doctors describe of witnessing siblings of children with seizures develop “functional seizures.”
A new paper published earlier this month in Comprehensive Psychiatry proposed that “social contagion” through prolonged social media use can explain why some teens, mostly adolescent females, self-diagnose with rare mental illnesses and personality disorders online.
The paper proposes that social media platforms like TikTok, whose core user base are teen girls, and the popularity of online communities that glamorize mental illness, may act as a “spread vector” for adolescents to adopt various disorders as part of their online personas.
Experts are trying to understand the various factors that made these teenagers so sensitive to what they watched online. A study from the University of Calgary co-authored by Dr. Pringsheim analyzed nearly 300 cases from eight countries and found that two-thirds were diagnosed with anxiety, one-quarter had depression, and one-quarter had autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 87% of the patients were female, a known skew found in previous outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness.
In new research that has not yet been published, the Canadian team has also found a link between TikTok tics and transgender identities. In a sample of 35 adolescents, 43% experiencing tics also self-identified as transgender or nonbinary – another suspected form of “social contagion.” Additional neurologists interviewed by the New York Times noticed similar trends among their patients.
According to neurologists, most teenagers who experienced tics during the pandemic have recovered without requiring intense treatment. Those who have continued to experience tics have been resistant to accepting the functional diagnosis. Additionally, some have experienced difficulty in addressing the underlying stressors causing the tics, and as a result, have developed other symptoms with no known biological cause, such as functional seizures or functional paralysis.
One teenager interviewed by the New York Times said their tics ceased when they stopped watching TikTok videos and stopped searching for “definitive answers about their mental health and identity.”
“After a year of therapy, I came to the conclusion that labels are stupid,” the teen said.