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‘Robust’ increase in tics during the pandemic explained?


Early results from a new study show a significant correlation between tic severity and social media use during the COVID pandemic in adolescents with a preexisting tic disorder.

The findings should help answer questions surrounding a recent increase in tic disorders, lead author Jessica Frey, MD, a movement disorders fellow at the University of Florida, Gainesville, told this news organization.

movement disorders fellow at the University of Florida, Gainesville University of Florida

Dr. Jessica Frey

“We’re trying to learn why there are new-onset explosive tic disorders [or] functional tic disorders, and to find ways to educate patients, parents, and the general public about what Tourette syndrome looks like – and how we can help patients have a better quality of life,” Dr. Frey said.

The findings will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology 2022 annual meeting in April.

‘Robust’ increase

A neurologic disorder that causes sudden repetitive involuntary muscle movements and sounds, Tourette syndrome typically develops in childhood, worsens in adolescence, and improves or completely disappears in adulthood, Dr. Frey noted.

The condition is often negatively portrayed in films, showing people using obscene gestures or vulgar language, she said. Although social media can be an “empowering tool” for tic sufferers, it is unregulated and can be a vehicle for “false information,” she added.

Dr. Frey noted that during the pandemic there has been a “robust” increase in use by teens of social media, particularly TikTok. At the same time, there have been reports of teen girls experiencing “explosive tic onset” that mimics videos from TikTok influencers.

The new analysis included 20 teens with a tic disorder, ranging in age from 11 to 21 years (average age, 16 years). About 45% of participants identified as male, 45% as female, and 10% as nonbinary.

The nature of the tic disorder varied widely among participants. Some had experienced tics for many years, while others only developed tics during the pandemic.

Participants completed a detailed survey, part of which inquired about where they received information about tics, such as from a doctor, media, parents, or teachers.

They were also asked to rank various social media platforms, including Tik Tok, Facebook, and YouTube on a five-point Likert scale as an information source about tics.

In addition, the survey inquired about tic severity and frequency, quality of life, and whether the pandemic or social media affected respondents’ tics.

Worsens quality of life

Results showed 65% of respondents used social media at least four to five times per day for an average of 5.6 hours per day. Approximately 90% reported increased use of social media during COVID.

Only 5% of participants reported using social media to provide information about tics.

About half of respondents indicated social media adversely affected their tics, and 85% said their tic frequency worsened during COVID.

Dr. Frey noted that because teens had to attend school virtually, that may have led to increased hours spent online.

There was no significant correlation between social media use and self-reported frequency of tics since the onset of COVID (Pearson correlation coefficient [R], –0.0055, P = .982).

However, there was a statistically significant correlation between social media use and tic severity (R, –0.496, P = .026) and quality of life (R, –0.447, P = .048).

These results suggest teenagers did not develop more tics, but rather the tics they already had worsened and affected their quality of life, Dr. Frey noted. She added that teens sometimes injure themselves while experiencing tics.

The full study has now enrolled 50 participants, and investigators anticipate that number to go up to 80. “We’re hoping to see more patterns emerge when we have a larger cohort of data available,” said Dr. Frey.

Asking parents to weigh in on the impact of social media on their child’s tic condition would be “a great idea for a follow-up study,” she added.


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