One of the stupider social contagions spread among teens by social media recently was kids coming down with a St. Vitus’s dance of twitching from watching other kids claim to have it on TikTok
From the New York Times news section, a long article that may have been designed to function as an allegory for the more severe but more politically privileged problem of rapid-onset gender dysphoria.
A wave of teenagers who developed tics during the pandemic has receded, illustrating the powerful influence of stress on the body and the resilience of adolescents.
Aidan, 18, developed involuntary tics after watching videos on TikTok posted by teenagers claiming to have Tourette’s syndrome. “It looked like Aidan was going crazy,” recalled their mother, Rhonda.
By Azeen Ghorayshi
Feb. 13, 2023
… Four out of five of the adolescents were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and one-third reported past traumatic experiences, according to a study from the University of Calgary that analyzed nearly 300 cases from eight countries. In new research that has not yet been published, the Canadian team has also found a link to gender: The adolescents were overwhelmingly girls, or were transgender or nonbinary—though no one knows why.
Perhaps as striking as the wave of TikTok tics is how quickly it has receded. As teenagers have resumed their prepandemic social lives, new cases of the tics have petered out.
… Historians looking back thousands of years have come across stories of patients—most often women—with tremors, seizures, paralysis and even blindness that could not be explained. The ancient Greeks called it “hysteria”…
In the Middle Ages, a period when many Europeans feared being possessed by the devil, nuns living in a French convent began meowing like cats. In the 2000s, hundreds of children of asylum seekers in Sweden became mute and bedridden for months to years....
Although so-called mass psychogenic illness has occurred throughout history, social media has dissolved the boundaries that once kept it geographically contained. …
“My practice has seen an unprecedented increase in young adolescent women with what appears to be acute explosive motor and vocal tics,” wrote a doctor in Kansas City, Mo.
The Canadian neurologists had seen the same thing. Most of these new patients did not fit the mold of a typical case of Tourette’s, which generally affects boys and begins in early childhood. Tourette’s tics tend to be simple movements—like blinking or coughing—and they wax and wane over time. In contrast, the new patients were often rushed to the emergency room with tics that had appeared seemingly overnight. They were relentless, elaborate movements, often accompanied by emotionally charged insults or funny phrases.
The matching accounts from physicians across the world made the neurologists suspect a shared source. They searched on YouTube but found little. Dr. Pringsheim’s teenage daughter suggested that they look at TikTok, an app used by more than two-thirds of American teenagers.
When they searched for the word “tic” and hundreds of videos popped up, Dr. Pringsheim was stunned.
“This is the person that I saw in my clinic today,” she recalled thinking.
The TikTok influencers were saying the same words—like “beans” and “beetroot”—and making the same motions, like thumping their fists on their chests.
Over the next few months, the influx of patients made the pediatric movement disorder clinic’s waiting list swell from three months to a year. “It was an avalanche,” Dr. Pringsheim said.
TikTok videos labeled #Tourettes have been viewed 7.7 billion times. …
The patients needed to accept two things: that they did not have Tourette’s, and that their twitches were partly under their control. They had to want to get better. …
Initially, many of the teenagers seemed hesitant to let go of their tics, Dr. Hnatowich said. Their behavior had some upsides, often allowing them to get more attention from distracted parents or to avoid the social and academic stresses of school.
The program encouraged the teenagers to slowly re-engage with the real world. …
Eighty-seven percent of the patients were female, a sex skew that was also found in previous outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness. …
… A surprising percentage of their patients with the TikTok tics identified as transgender or nonbinary. But without hard data in hand, multiple attendees said, the doctors worried about publicly linking transgender identity and mental illness.
Because transgender identity, such as wanting to have yourself mutilated, is not a mental illness. It’s an identity, a good identity, unlike, say, whiteness, which is a bad identity.
…This April, the Calgary group plans to present the first analysis of the gender data at a neurology meeting in Boston. Looking at a sample of 35 patients with the TikTok tics, the researchers found that 15 of the adolescents—43 percent—were transgender or nonbinary, compared with 12 percent of their patients with Tourette’s or with no tics. (An estimated 1.4 percent of the general population of adolescents in the United States identify as transgender.)
Other neurologists told The New York Times that they had also seen a disproportionate number of gender-diverse adolescents with the sudden tics. At a London clinic, about 11 percent of patients were transgender or nonbinary. The head of a large clinic in Paris said 12 percent were gender diverse. At a clinic in Hanover in Germany—the only country where many boys developed the sudden tics, probably because of the popularity of a young male influencer with Tourette’s there—the figure was 6 percent.
Dr. McVige, the neurologist who treated the girls in Le Roy, said that four out of her seven patients with TikTok tics were transgender, nonbinary or had gender dysphoria. Dr. Gilbert estimated that among his 200 patients in Ohio, 25 to 30 percent were transgender or nonbinary.
“We haven’t made any conclusions about this,” Dr. Pringsheim said. “But we know that there’s something going on here.”
Though the data is limited, some studies have suggested that transgender people have higher rates of functional disorders, which may be related to experiencing higher rates of discrimination, stigma and bias, said Dr. Z Paige L’Erario, a neurologist in New York City who collaborated on the unpublished study. …
Other doctors suspect that a small subset of adolescents with serious mental health issues may be more susceptible to social influences. And during the pandemic, adolescents spent more time online, engaging with increasingly popular content related to mental health and gender, Dr. Hnatowich said.
You are not supposed to say that the ongoing transgender fad is an example of social contagion, because transgenders have gotten themselves declared to be sacred. Fortunately, kids who similarly pick up Tiktokitis in the same fashion, many of them the same kids, are treated by our society more skeptically, so their symptoms tend to go away because other people are free to be bored and unimpressed by them.