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‘Urgent Public Health Priority’: TikTok a Potential ‘Spread Vector’ for Mental Illness, Symptoms and Disorders, Experts

Published: January 9, 2023
The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on Dec. 20, 2022 in Culver City, California. Congress is pushing legislation to ban the popular Chinese-owned social media app from most government devices. (Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A recent report, published in collaboration by three Canadian experts concluded that the popular social media app, TikTok, represents an “urgent public health priority” and adds to the body of evidence that the Chinese owned video streaming app is a threat to youths’ wellbeing and mental health.  

The report entitled, “Social media as an incubator of personality and behavioral psychopathology,” examines multiple social media platforms but singles out TikTok as particularly harmful. 

“One social media site that has received increasing media and research scrutiny as a potential conduit or ‘spread vector’ for mental illness symptoms and disorders is TikTok,” the authors state. 

The authors argue that there has been a well-documented increase in popular content creators with self-described tics or Tourette’s syndrome, among other self-diagnosed disorders, and that this increase has coincided with “increasing numbers of youth who have presented to clinical providers or psychiatric services during the COVID-19 pandemic with what have been termed functional tic-like behaviors,” adding that, “Similar phenomenon has also been recently chronicled with respect to dissociative identity disorder (DID).”

Dissociative identity disorder was formerly known as “multiple personality disorder.”

In addition, youth are engaging in “self-diagnosis” of multiple other mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, autism, and gender identity-related conditions.

“The continued evolution of this trend underscores an urgent need for increased understanding of the influence of social media on mental health,” the authors state adding that there is a possibility “that increasingly algorithmic social media platforms may serve as a vehicle of transmission for social contagion of self-diagnosed mental illness conditions.”

‘TikTok Disorder,’ teen girls particularly susceptible 

A March, 2021 report by Henry Ford Health, states that an “increasing number of teenage girls have been experiencing uncontrollable tics,” and places the blame squarely at the feet of the short video streaming platform.

“Experts were initially perplexed, because tics associated with Tourette’s syndrome are generally more common in boys than girls. But it turns out that TikTok — not Tourette’s — is to blame,” the report argues.

Omar Danoun, M.D., a neurologist at Henry Ford Health said, “These teenage girls who are exhibiting tics aren’t necessarily fitting within the normal tic disorders that we’ve known, like with Tourette’s syndrome or epilepsy,” adding that, “For example, they’re talking in a British accent, or their movements are weird, or they’re saying British words.”  

Henry Ford Health explains that teen girls are watching TikTok videos with content creators who exhibit tics, then because they are watching the videos so often, “their brains start to mimic the tics.”

“What these teen girls have are called functional tics—it’s a functional neurological disorder,” says Dr. Danoun. “We’ve seen this before in children who have parents or siblings with seizures. They’ll develop functional seizures. The brain imitates what it sees. It’s used as an escape mechanism.” 

Dr. Danoun explains that teenage girls are more susceptible to functional neurological disorders than males because at this age they are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.


Participants ride a transgender float in the annual Pride Parade on June 12, 2022 in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, California. (Image: David McNew/Getty Images)

TikTok and gender dysphoria

A report, published by the Daily Mail last year detailed numerous social media influencers — who primarily use TikTok as a medium — that many say are having a detrimental effect on users’ mental health. 

The report cites a number of TikTok content creators with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of views. 

UK parents are concerned that TikTok is fueling a “social contagion” convincing impressionable youth that they are transgender. 

An inquiry by the news outlet revealed that the hashtag #Trans was seen more than 26 billion times on the platform as of June, 2021. 

Kate Harris, of the LGB Alliance, a British advocacy group founded in the UK in 2019, told the Daily Mail, “It’s no coincidence that the growth of TikTok coincides exactly with the exponential growth of children presenting with gender dysphoria,” adding that “What these videos would lead a generation of children to believe is that it is easy to change sex and that it is the answer to all of your problems.”

She went on to describe the video content as “deeply frightening” saying that many of the videos advocate that child viewers “Don’t involve [their] parents.”

Founder and Director of Transgender Trend, an organization of parents, professionals and academics who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose children as transgender and who advocate for evidence-based healthcare for children told the Daily Mail that TikTok, is “hugely influential and it’s full of videos that portray medical transition as cool and edgy.”

“These social media platforms that promote medical transition should be made to include a warning on such material,” she argues. 

In response, a spokesman for TikTok said, “We are honored that the LGBTQ+ community has embraced TikTok from our very early days, as a platform for self-expression, education, community-building and joy.”

TikTok’s connection to the Chinese Communist Party

TikTok, which launched in 2018, gained approximately one billion active monthly users worldwide by 2021, a number that only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The platform is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese technology firm with strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In June of 2021, cybersecurity experts came forward warning that the Chinese government could use the platform to spread propaganda or censorship to Americans, or to influence users who may come to regret what they posted online. 

In June 2020, the Trump administration sought to ban the platform in the U.S. with then-Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, saying that the platform might be “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.” Operators of the platform consistently deny these claims.

Once in the White House, President Joe Biden signed an executive order revoking Trump’s order to ban the app unless it found a U.S. buyer. 

Recently, in Dec. 2022, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation seeking to ban the app. 

“The federal government has yet to take a single meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok,” the senator wrote adding that, “This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day. We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections. We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China. There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company. It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good,” Rubio said.