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This Teen Behavior Increased Tic Severity During Pandemic, Scientists Say

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Tics are uncontrollable motions and sounds that are frequently triggered by an irrepressible urge to make them. They are the hallmark of chronic tic disorders, such as Tourette syndrome, a neurodevelopmental illness that manifests in childhood.

A new study published today says that an increase in social media use among teens and young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic may be associated with an increase in tic severity.

Given the reported demand for social media use during the pandemic, as well as the parallel increase in tic disorders in their clinic, the study author Jessica Frey with other colleagues examined whether there was any association between social media use and tic symptoms.

The study included 20 tics-affected youths and young adults ranging in age from 11 to 21 years old. Participants completed a survey that looked at how much time they spent on social media, how often they had tics, how severe those tics were, and their overall quality of life. The perception of one’s physical and mental wellbeing is referred to as quality of life.

65 percent of the participants said they spent an average of six hours per day on social media, with 90 percent saying they used it more during the pandemic than before.

In addition, 85 percent of respondents said their tic frequency increased during the pandemic, and 50 percent said social media had a negative impact on their tics.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers discovered a link between increased social media use and an increase in tic intensity and lower quality of life. Researchers, for example, asked individuals to rate the severity of their tics on a scale of zero to six, with zero being the least severe and six being the most severe. Those who did not report an increase in social media use during COVID-19 ranked their tic frequency as four on average. Those who said they used social media more during COVID-19 rated their tic frequency as a five. Participants also rated their quality of life on a scale of zero to six, with six being the worst week of their lives and three indicating little change. Those who used social media more frequently received a 2.5, while those who used it less frequently received a 1.5.

However, researchers found no link between social media use and how frequently a person had tics, either at the time of the study or since the pandemic began.

“Our results have begun to shed light on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and increased social media use may be having on teens and young adults with tic disorders,” adds Frey. “More research is needed to better identify the exact stressors that are leading to more severe tics so we can work to reduce stressors for those who are experiencing them.” 

The researchers intend to expand their study by enrolling an additional 60 subjects to examine these correlations in further detail.

The study was limited by the fact that patients only reported on their own symptoms. Changes in the nature and complexity of tics were also not evaluated.

The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 73rd Annual Meeting, which will be held in Seattle, April 2–7, 2022, and virtually, April 24–26, 2022.

Image Credit: Getty

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