Latest Moral Panic: No, TikTok Probably Isn't Giving Teenage Girls Tourette Syndrome

from the not-sure-it-works-that-way dept

If you recall, the U.S. spent much of 2020 freaking out about TikTok’s threat to privacy, while oddly ignoring that the company’s privacy practices are pretty much the international norm (and ignoring a whole lot of significantly worse online security and privacy problems we routinely do nothing about). More recently there was another moral panic over the idea that TikTok was turning children into immoral thieving hellspawn as part of the Devious licks meme challenge.

Now, one initial report by the Wall Street Journal has alleged that teen girls are watching so many TikToks by other girls with Tourette Syndrome, they’re developing tics. The idea that you can develop an entirely new neurological condition by watching short form videos sounds like quite a stretch, but the claim has already bounced around the news ecosystem for much of the year:

” Chailyn Thorne, 18, suffers from tics, some of them so severe that she feels paralyzed. The uncontrollable movements and sounds even put the Arkansas teen in a hospital bed…It?s not something she was born with, however. Thorne may have developed the tics in response to TikTok.

May have indeed. Some experts have added fuel to the fire by claiming the link between TikTok and tics is a valid one:

“John Piacentini, director of the UCLA Child OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Clinic and Tourette Association Center of Excellence, recently co-published several papers on the topic, and he says the girls? symptoms are real.

?They?re seeing all these influencers that appear to have very robust and happy lives, and Tourette?s becomes contagious in some ways,? Piacentini said.

He added that mimicking behaviors is ?a natural phenomenon,? but ?the scope and the scale is beyond anything we?ve ever seen before.?

There are, of course, a few problems here. First, obviously, correlation does not equal causation, and you’d want a broader peer-reviewed study showing a direct link before claiming there’s a direct link. Secondly, I’ve been a journalist long enough, and talked to enough academics and niche experts, to know you can find an expert or academic to support pretty much any theory that exists (a huge number of academics at major schools believe 5G is a huge threat to human health, for example, despite no hard evidence that’s actually true). But one-off beliefs by experts don’t automatically make something true.

As Snopes notes, the actual source of the claims (two editorials) indicate that while there has been an uptick in referrals for such disorders, there hasn’t been a corresponding uptick in diagnoses. Most but not all of the teens referred had watched TikTok in the months leading up to their initial diagnoses, but given TikTok’s popularity among teen girls that’s not proof of much. Most of the teens had also been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, which, while frequent co-diagnoses with Tourette, again isn’t proof of anything since anxiety and depression are increasingly common during the pandemic.

In other words, the link here is pretty shaky. There are a number of popular teen influencers with tics, and this popularity may just be driving awareness of the disorder, driving teens to seek referrals for disorders they previously may not have known even existed. That would mean that TikTok is potentially acting as a net positive by bringing awareness and exposure that allows younger folks to get the help and sympathy they need. It’s also possible anxious or depressed teens, trying to navigate a brutal pandemic, are easily suggestible and are seeking connection through a form of mimicry they’re not aware they’re even doing.

In other words, there’s a lot of nuance here that the press — designed from the ground up to seek out ad engagement over sometimes complicated or boring reality — isn’t going to be particularly clear on. As a result, the idea that “TikTok causes Tourette” will be the takeaway for many, despite the fact there’s no research actually showing this to be true.

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Comments on “Latest Moral Panic: No, TikTok Probably Isn't Giving Teenage Girls Tourette Syndrome”

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Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Satanic panic all over again.

This is just like the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s. Due to the fact I have Autism, I went to a special education school for most of my life, and I have got to know people with Tourette’s syndrome. It’s absurd in the extreme to think it’s contagious in any way the same way, say, AIDS or COVID is, because it’s not: it’s something with which one is born, not something one acquires.

This is just stupid yellow journalists looking for clickbait and disinforming (I think that word applies, because thinking someone can acquire Tourette’s syndrome after decades of research should earn someone the reputation of trolling rather than earnest inquest) rather than informing.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Satanic panic all over again.

It’s absurd in the extreme to think it’s contagious in any way

Yeah, I tell you, those people make me want to just &%^$ them in the &^%ing &^$%% and get those $#@! idiots fired from their $#@!$# jobs that ^&%$& clearly don’t require any &^%$&^ experience.

Oh $^&6%$# I think I just &^%$&@# caught ^%$#^%ing Tourette’s.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 THe stench of failure

You used too many words, you should’ve ended with "shot". Oh wait… I guess they don’t have a vaccine for stupidity yet, do they. Back to the cannon idea.

(Another version of this is being held in moderation, and it was in the middle of being edited. I hope the moderator picks up on that, and deletes it. (Somehow, when h

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Ticorette Gum

If the fear of developing Tourette’s leads to some folks cutting back, then it will do them some good.

But who will you have to scapegoat for censorship then, dumbass? Cutting back would certainly lead to some of you people not being able to air out your bullshit effectively.

Then what’ll you do? Have you already researched how you’re being persecuted next, or is that task still in progress?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

What do we want!!
A cure for Tourette’s!!
When do we want it??
(Something something express train to hell for me)

If I spend x amount of time with someone with an accent, I end up emulating the accent without being aware of it.
You ever tried to order food at the drive thru speaker in the midwest with a Boston accent?
No matter how much I want to stop, the accent doesn’t clear until it clears.

Child watches 200 hours of tic tiktoc develops a tic of their own… "smart" people jump on the same band wagon we’ve seen over and over that new thing = death sentence for children.
(See also the Priest decrying Teddy Bears as they would turn little girls into evil unnurturing creatures!!)

And I am so sure that there are no children affected by this who are doing it for attention & refuse to admit it. (See also: Kids who lost lungs claiming they NEVER EVER used black market THC vape carts & the parents who believed that shit)

How about Desiree Jennings gaining fame and attention because the seasonal flu shot caused her to have dystonia & a multitude of issues that all vanished when she walked/ran backwards. Magically the same media who promoted her horror story & raised fear about the flu shot kept watching her and ZOMG she had a magically perfect recovery when no one with a tv camera was looking at her.

ProTip: Stop blaming the new thing for everything.

Teens have been trapped in a fscking pandemic, listening to bodycounts rising, adults & leaders STILL claiming its not dangerous, banning masks, still claiming the vaccine will turn them into mutant alien face eating zombies with really good cell reception, constant lies & ignoring reality even as the zombie is chewing on their face…. and we expect that children would be perfectly fine locked in the house for years without social interaction with other humans.

Adults have made the world unsafe for kids.
Pandemic, Global Warming, drought, mega storms… when is the last time most parents sat down and asked their kid if they were okay? Have they built a relationship where their child can tell them whats overwhelming them & let them get their fears out?

Nope we hand them a smartphone & let them google it…
Kids google their things they are feeling, end up on webmd (the CYOA website where every choice leads to death) & learning the ‘truth’ from FB posts (Because parents told FB to parent their kids better so its totes happening).

But hey now a bunch of adults are going to force kids to uninstall tiktoc to avoid contracting tiktok tics, ignoring that cutting them off from the tiny bit of social interactions they had in the pandemic maybe just maybe might lead to bigger problems.

Humans – how the fsck are you still alive?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Daniel Audy says:

My child’s psychologist says she sees waves of self-reported psychiatric problems as the subject becomes popular on TikTok or Instagram that are largely imagined because the descriptions of the condition being given are broad enough to cover many completely normal teenage feelings and experiences. So while most of them are explained what ACTUALLY the condition is like and realize that they don’t have it, some few are able to put a name to an experience they didn’t realize others were having. Really the problem is the exact same thing we see with adults looking up stuff on WebMD and thinking that they have unusual conditions because of normal everyday symptoms.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Really the problem is the exact same thing we see with adults looking up stuff on WebMD and thinking that they have unusual conditions because of normal everyday symptoms."

This right there. Pre-existing condition is revealed through <medium X>, confirmed by medical investigation…and everyone proceeds to shoot the messenger.

It’s the textbook analogy of mature adults somehow confusing correlation with causation. The argument that the panicked hare caused the thunderstorm it ran from.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Religion

"Are we finally going to get a moral panic about introducing religion to minors?"

Ironically it’s usually both the religious folk which drive moral panic laws who also need to rely on the freedom of religion clause in the first amendment so as to not continually get in trouble with social services over brainwashing, indoctrinating and abusing minors.

I’d have to say it would only be reasonable that if violence and sex are to be kept from young minds then the same should hold true for fairy tales about how the big invisible granddaddy in the sky watches you every second of your life and judges you by some arbitrary social standard hammered out in the bronze age.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Religion

"You’d think after all the fake panics people would eventually go after the number one cause of death in human history. "

I’m afraid that the people causing all the fake panic – and no shortage of atrocities over such fake panics – aren’t really big on accepting the idea that it’s the faith which drove them to claim some harmless behavior an abomination to be expunged by fire and sword, which poses the real threat.

My guess is they’ll just call you an abomination and try to expunge you with fire and sword if you suggest it.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:


My guess would be an easily influenced subconscious of younger people.
Some people are just more apt to pick up and mimic things than others.

I’ll pick up local lingual accents in a few days. It’s not by choice. It just sort of happens.
And some things I never loose later. Slurs, combos, dropped letters, etc.

And I’ve read about people picking up mannerisms. Don’t know how true that is though.
I think those old studies may have been the lost basis of the various panics over this or that influence.

Your not spreading some neural syndrome, you’d be mimicking the effects.

:plausible: ?

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