What You Need to Know About the “TikTok Tics”

The bizarre saga is a modern example of mass psychogenic illness

A conceptual graphic featuring the TikTok logo in the middle.
It's tempting to blame this all on phones. But the issue is more complicated than that.
NurPhoto / Contributor

Right off the bat: it’s highly unlikely that you, your kid or anyone you personally know will develop the “TikTok tics.” But the phenomenon, which developed in early 2021 and took more than a year to die down amongst adolescents the world over, is a very real condition that speaks to the influence of the internet age. Researchers documented thousands of instances in which teenagers had watched TikTok videos of teenagers claiming to have Tourette’s syndrome and then developed tics themselves.

A recent spread in The New York Times profiles children who one day simply started convulsing, beating their chests with their fists, snapping their heads, cursing, and repeatedly yelling the same nonsense phrases, like “Pay me!” “Beetroot!” and “I’m a silly goose!”

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According to the pediatricians, neurologists and psychiatrists who spent the last two years studying — and working to alleviate — the “TikTok tics,” adolescents who exhibited the bizarre behavior had watched videos from TikTok influencers who either had Tourette’s or claimed to have Tourette’s. The more that they watched these videos (the Tourette’s hashtag has more than seven billion views on the platform, so they watched quite a few of them), the more susceptible they became to adopting the tics themselves.

Why? A perfect storm of empathy, repetition, vulnerability, trauma and isolation. Those most likely to develop the tics were female, transgender or nonbinary; they watched the videos during the height of lockdown; two-thirds of them had a history of anxiety; and a quarter of them had autism or ADHD.

Medical professionals have been able to alleviate these symptoms by working one-on-one with young patients, reminding them that they do not have Tourette’s and that they have control over their behavior. Along the way, psychiatrists parsed through patients’ backgrounds for clues on how they got here in the first place, while encouraging parents to ignore the tics — thereby removing the role of added attention as a dubious reward.

It’s easy to view this saga as the latest sign that smartphones are rotting youth brains. But that’s an oversimplification of the issue. In reality, mass hysteria, or “mass psychogenic illness,” is a well-researched phenomenon with 3,500 cases since the Middle Ages. The incidents are always weird and sudden and disproportionately ensnare women. What phones can do is generate widespread, online iterations of the tradition — which could be more dangerous, and more difficult to root out, if some victims live in places with inadequate medical care or underwhelming support for conditions of mental health.

It’s impossible to order your adolescent children to permanently delete TikTok from their phones or to avoid certain types of videos — the combined power of their curiosity and the platform’s algorithm will win the day, no matter what. But parents should understand that if their kids’ mental health is on shaky ground, social media trends and movements can prove compelling and sometimes ugly.

The best defense is an honest, open, consistent dialogue. Instead of asking what they’re watching these days, in order to pass judgment, make sure to check in on how they’re feeling, in order to offer support. At such an impressionable age, it’s inevitable that kids will come home spouting phrases you’ve never heard before. But hopefully they sound more like “rizz” and less like “beetroot!”

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