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.