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An increase in people with tics and social media

Posted on 6 January 2022 by Pippa McClounan

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A statement from Tourettes Action Medical Director

It is widely recognised that among people with tics only some have Tourette Syndrome, while others have so-called ‘functional tics’ which resemble TS tics but are qualitatively different. In both cases tics are ‘suggestible’. That is, when people with tics see another person ticcing, their own tics can be triggered or exacerbated and severe bouts of tics or ‘tic-attacks’ may develop. People with tics are also susceptible to copying the motor and vocal tics of others, the so-called echo phenomena. It has become clearer recently that people with tics can be influenced by viewing others having tics on social media.

These are mechanisms by which people who already have tics, and people who have previously not had tics, can be influenced, or triggered by others they admire when displaying tics on TikTok or other social media.  For some, there may be a sudden explosive onset of more florid movements than are typically seen in TS or tic disorders. There has been an increase in functional tics and tic-like movements and behaviours in people both with, and without, pre-existing tics during the COVID pandemic.

Why this is happening is not entirely clear, but the development of functional tics may be an expression of psychological distress or anxiety that has developed over the pandemic due to social isolation or pressure because of difficult schooling etc. Explaining the nature of functional tics and exploring underlying anxieties is an important first step.

Further research is needed to understand the deeper causes of tic outbreaks and to develop optimal help for those who experience them.

 

Some further facts about tics and TS

  • Tourette syndrome affects 1% of schoolchildren with motor and vocal tics ranging from mild to severe (very often not like cases seen in TV documentaries)
  • Tourette syndrome is more common in boys and is associated with other conditions such as ADHD and OCD
  • Tourette syndrome usually starts in young children and improves as they get older and move into adulthood, but this is not always the case
  • Tics are naturally ‘suggestible’. When people with tics see another person ticcing, their condition can be exacerbated, and they are susceptible to copying tics. Many people consciously avoid being in this situation.
  • In some cases, tics can be ‘functional’, movements or noises which resemble tics but are clinically different. For example, the sudden and explosive onset of more severe movements than are typically seen in tic disorders, and bouts of very intrusive tic attacks. These are often referred to as tic-like movements or behaviours.
  • Since the COVID pandemic there has been an increase in people seen with functional tics in specialist clinics reported in several countries, both with and without pre-existing tics. Unlike Tourette Syndrome this is more common in girls and women.
  • It is not entirely clear why this is happening. It may be an expression of psychological distress or anxiety that has developed over the pandemic due to being socially isolated or under pressure, for example with difficult schooling. Social media may be a contributing factor.
  • Explaining the nature of functional tics and exploring underlying anxieties is an important first step in treatment.
  • Further research is needed to optimise the help for these young people.

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