As local teens come down with ‘tic-like symptoms,’ doctors say it could be linked to TikTok

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — Is TikTok giving teenagers tics?

Local doctors are reporting a boom in teenagers developing ‘tic-like symptoms’ and doctors say it could be linked to TikTok.

“My tics first started when I was about 7 years old,” said Allen Shoaf of North Canton.

Shoaf was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome at 14 years old.

“I have too many tics to count. I have a lot in my arms, I make a lot of different sounds,” said Shoaf.

And like many other teenagers living with Tourette’s, Shoaf turned to Tiktok for Tourette and tics content during the pandemic.

“When you see other people tic-ing, some of your tics become a lot more prevalent and frequent,” said Shoaf.

The social media platform became a double-edged sword for Shoaf.

“Because I know there are times when I am listening to people giving speeches or talking about their tics, I notice my tics start happening more often,” Shoaf said. “At the same time, that platform has given so many advocates a way to talk about TS.”

“We have seen this at Akron Children’s Hospital first hand,” said Dr. Katrina Lindsay, director of the Tic & Tourette Service at Akron Children’s Hospital. Lindsay said referrals for tic disorders in teenagers boomed during the pandemic.

“We are seeing a lot of teen girls experiencing tic disorder. While teen girls can experience tic disorder and Tourette syndrome, oftentimes that might be the first clue,” said Lindsay.

That’s because, according to Dr. Lindsay, Tourette syndrome affects far more boys than girls, and tends to develop gradually over time. She said based on the sudden symptoms, this tic disorder boom does not appear to be anatomical but psychological.

“Things like self-esteem issues, related to attention-seeking or seeing kids and teens going through the same things as them,” said Lindsay.

And a common thread in many cases is the use of TikTok, which exploded in a younger generation during the pandemic.

“I do a lot of things. I do a lot of grunts. My most famous tic is a sound I make. I’ve had that one for a long time, that is why my throat is so scratchy today,” said Summer Hope, also known as @that_tourettes_girl on TikTok.

Hope has more than 2.3 million likes on the platform.

“I have Coprolalia where I say cuss words. I do a lot of motor movements where I move my arms, as well,” said Hope.

As an advocate and influencer with Tourette’s, Hope said that she’s worried about what is happening.

“It was definitely shocking at first.  I felt a sense of remorse that if these girls or teenagers are picking up tics after watching my videos, I do feel bad but I do feel glad that they do feel a little less alone,” added Hope.

Dr. Lindsay said many of the new cases are being diagnosed as “functional neurological disorder.” It’s something that can be exacerbated by TikTok’s algorithm that zeroes in on the user’s interests and pushes that content into feeds.

“When I see that tic, the first question I ask is how much time are you spending on screens?” said Lindsay.

So, what is a parent to do if their teenager starts showing symptoms?  

Dr. Lindsay said first consult a doctor, take a break from social media, and then take steps to minimize any stress or anxiety.

“A Lot of kids are walking around like little stress balls. And so if a massage therapist can teach their body how to relax, it sets them up for success,” said Lindsay.

As for Shoaf, he’s come to terms with living with Tourette’s and embraces it as part of life.

“Sometimes, by people pretending or making jokes, it is putting a hold on the important conversations that are helping students at school dealing with Tourette syndrome or much less help them understand what we are going through,” said Shoaf.

Find more information on Akron Children’s Tic & Tourette Service right here.  

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