Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors have observed an increase in teen girls experiencing tics — or what appears to be verbal and motor tics.
“Tics are sudden, repetitive, non-rhythmic movements or sounds that are difficult to control,” says Jessica Frey, MD, a neurologist specializing in movement disorders at West Virginia University.
Common motor tics include neck jerking, hand flapping, or head banging. Vocal outbursts or phonic tics often include grunting, coughing, or humming.
Tics are most commonly associated with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that impacts the part of the brain that controls movement. Symptoms
The majority of these teens, however, aren’t experiencing tics because they have late-onset Tourette syndrome, says Frey.
Instead, the stress of the pandemic and social media are coming together to create the perfect storm for tics, she says.
The rise of video-based social platforms has given users increased access to influencers who have Tourette syndrome, as well as videos of tics.
As niche as this content may sound, at the time of publication #ticsandroses, #ticsandtourettes, and #ticsgirl have millions of views each, and influencers @baylen.dupree and @willoriewisp have more than 8 million and 1.6 million followers, respectively.
Healthcare professionals began to suspect that these viral videos influenced the sudden rise in tic development when a pattern emerged in the type of tics they were seeing.
Frey explains that when an individual has Tourette syndrome, they typically have tics that are unique to them.
The tics that some doctors were reporting were overwhelmingly similar to one another, particularly among people in different geographical locations, as well as the tics displayed on social media, she says.
But the reason why isn’t as simple as a widespread imitation.
“The rise in tics in teenage girls is more nuanced and complex than was originally thought,” says Frey.
Social media, after all, has also helped increase awareness of tics and Tourettes, says William Balanoff, DDS, MS, FICD, who specializes in finding oral appliances that can help minimize the vocal tic associated with Tourette syndrome.
“It’s possible Tourettes is being diagnosed more because of greater awareness of the condition amongst doctors, parents, and teenagers themselves,” he says.
Many teenage girls may not have realized that their behaviors had a name until they saw it in others on social media, adds Balanoff
In other words, the behavior may have preceded the COVID-19 pandemic or the use of TikTok and other video platforms.
“While there was a rise in social media use amongst the teenage population during the pandemic, there were also increased rates of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear during the pandemic, which are known modulators of tic conditions,” explains Balanoff.
“It’s possible that stress and isolation during the pandemic has contributed to the development of tics in some individuals, including teenage girls,” says Sarah Johnson, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents with anxiety and stress disorders.
“Many children and young adults haven’t developed the coping mechanisms necessary to navigate uncharted stressors,” says Balanoff.
The development of tics may be a way for the body to release some of this excess stress, he adds.
Why we’re focusing on teenage girls
Cisgender boys and others assigned male at birth are more likely to be diagnosed with tics and tic-causing conditions.
For instance, data suggests that boys are
Although researchers observed increased tic development across
For starters, approach them with tender, loving kindness — not anger.
“Parents often scold their children when they tic, but this won’t do anything but frustrate your teen because, no matter the underlying cause, they don’t have control over their tics,” says Balanoff.
It’s important to accept your child for who they are and what they’re going through, he says.
“As uncomfortable as it may be for you to watch them tic, internally, your child is suffering and needs your love and support,” says Balanoff.
Johnson recommends making an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare professional. They can assess your child’s symptoms and help determine the underlying cause.
In instances where stress and social media have contributed to the development of your teen’s tics, therapy may be beneficial.
Therapy can help your child manage their stress, which will ultimately help them manage their tics, says Johnson. A therapist can also help you, the parent, create a supportive and accepting environment for them at home, she says.
If your teen’s tics result from an underlying condition — including Tourette syndrome, cerebral palsy, and Huntington’s disease — or substance use, your clinician will discuss options for treatment and symptom management.
The proper professional will help your teen feel more comfortable and confident with their condition. If your teen doesn’t feel respected or like they’re being listened to, it may be time to consult a new clinician.
To find a knowledgeable healthcare professional in your area, check out this directory from The Tourette Association of America.
Since the onset of the pandemic, doctors have reported a rise in tics among teenage girls.
But the underlying cause isn’t as simple as consuming viral videos of tics and Tourette syndrome on TikTok. It’s likely due to a complex combination of stress, social media use, and social awareness.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.