Within the past several months, an increasing number of teenage girls have been experiencing uncontrollable tics. Experts were initially perplexed, because tics associated with Tourette’s syndrome are generally more common in boys than girls. But it turns out that TikTok—not Tourette’s—is to blame.
“These teenage girls who are exhibiting tics aren’t necessarily fitting within the normal tic disorders that we’ve known, like with Tourette’s syndrome or epilepsy,” says Omar Danoun, M.D., a neurologist at Henry Ford Health. “For example, they’re talking in a British accent, or their movements are weird, or they’re saying British words.”
The Link Between TikTok And Tics
So what’s happening? Teen girls are watching TikTok videos featuring influencers who do have tics. Then, because they’re watching these videos so often, their brains start to mimic the tics. “What these teen girls have are called functional tics—it’s a functional neurological disorder,” says Dr. Danoun. “We’ve seen this before in children who have parents or siblings with seizures. They’ll develop functional seizures. The brain imitates what it sees. It’s used as an escape mechanism.”
There’s a network in the brain that’s responsible for conflict resolution. Instead of using healthy coping mechanisms, the brain learns to use this tic to resolve the conflict. “Here’s an example most people can relate to: Say you have to stand up and talk in front of lots of people,” says Dr. Danoun. “You get nervous and so your hands start to shake, your heart starts to race, you get sweaty. You’re not having a heart attack or a stroke, you’re having a psychological conflict in your brain and it’s manifesting itself as physical symptoms.”
Functional neurological disorders are often associated with anxiety, depression and/or trauma, so people with these mental health conditions may be more susceptible to developing functional tics. “Teenage girls are also more susceptible to functional neurological disorders than boys because they are more susceptible to anxiety and depression at this age,” says Dr. Danoun.
Treatment Methods For TikTok Tics
While these TikTok tics are not Tourette’s or epilepsy, they are a real disorder. “These teen girls aren’t faking it or doing it to get attention—they can’t control the tics,” says Dr. Danoun. “That said, it’s very important to understand the difference between a tic disorder like Tourette’s and functional tics, as they require different treatment.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy is the main method of treatment for functional tics: patients work with a therapist to learn how to express themselves and channel stress in a healthier way. If a patient also has depression or anxiety, they may also be given medication to manage those conditions. “But it’s important to note that these tics are not anxiety, depression or PTSD,” says Dr. Danoun. “While they can be worsened by those conditions, they are not the same thing and should be treated as a functional neurological disorder.”
Along with therapy, it’s also important to limit social media consumption and avoid following people on TikTok who have these tics. “Especially once you know you are susceptible to a functional neurological disorder, it’s important to use social media responsibly,” says Dr. Danoun.
“Just like we say ‘drink responsibly,’ we should use social media responsibly. It is addictive. And the more time you spend on it, the more the algorithm will keep feeding you the same types of videos to keep you watching for as long as possible. That’s the business model of all social media platforms. It can be difficult, but it’s up to us to limit our consumption.”
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Dr. Omar Danoun is a neurologist with Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center in Taylor.