A mysterious neurological illness is sweeping young women across Australia – experts fear social media addiction and pandemic stress are triggering the problem.
Tourette’s syndrome-like disorder sees teens suffer from uncontrollable “tics” — which include outbursts, jerks, pops, noises, swearing, kicking, and hitting.
Doctors are also observing the phenomenon around the world, where previously healthy young women reported experiencing sudden violent physical and verbal impulses.
But what’s causing the rapid rise in cases has left parents and medical officials baffled.
One possible explanation is that anxiety and stress resulting from prolonged periods of isolation combined with obsession with apps like TikTok could have been the trigger.
“This bright, brave, fiercely independent young girl is just trapped in her own body, in her own mind. It’s really hard to watch,” Melissa told 60 Minutes of her daughter Metallica – before the teen slapped her mother.
Metallica slaps her mother Melissa – one of the many tics the teenager suffers from as a result of the new disease affecting young Australian girls
Metallica said that “lockdowns and not seeing my friends as much” made her tics worse. Her older sister, Charlie, also developed the same condition during the pandemic.
“When she has her tics, I go away so it doesn’t upset me and make it worse for her,” Charlie said.
Her family have chosen to take a positive view of the two disorders, saying some of her tics are so absurd you can’t help but laugh – but the reality is a lot sadder.
Both Metallica and Charlie require constant care, with both suffering from extreme forms of the condition.
During the pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in similar reported cases, mostly in teenage girls, where symptoms can appear as quickly as overnight.
Doctors remain in the dark about the cause – but many believe it is directly linked to the social fallout of lockdowns and social media addiction.
At the age of 14, Michaela suffered from extreme tics that developed so quickly that her parents took her to the hospital immediately.
“I was serving dinner, I heard some noises and a scream and saw her lying on the floor. I thought she was having a massive anxiety attack, next an arm would fly, then a leg,” her mother said.
‘She said she didn’t want it. It was really scary, really really scary.’
Michaela was one of the first girls to contract the new condition – which terrified her parents and doctors when she was first admitted to hospital after the tics started overnight
Michaela, now 16, was one of the first to suffer from what appeared to be a new condition – doctors were “shocked” and “anxious” about her condition.
The teen did handstands, floor rolls and even splits – with her school constantly calling her parents to let them know about new tics.
“I was constantly nervous,” she said.
Nicole, a 15-year-old British woman, began suffering from tics just before her 13th birthday – with mild facial twitches that turned into violent physical and verbal outbursts.
Her mother said the most confrontational of her quirks was that she frequently yelled “I’m Madeleine McCann, I’ve been kidnapped” in public.
As in many other cases, Nicole’s tics emerged during Covid when she was admittedly “very lonely”.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself. You can’t see friends or family, it wasn’t a very nice thing to be around,” she told 60 Minutes.
Professor Russell Dale – a pediatric neurologist at Westmead Hospital – said he had heard of girls “all over the world” suffering from conditions similar to the young women brought to him.
He said the first case he saw of the disease was with Michaela two years ago and that it was “something different” than anything he had seen before.
“There were quite violent movements, beatings on themselves, but the vocalizations were also different. Instead of simple noises, there were complicated phrases — which was pretty bizarre, I’ve never seen that,” he told the program.
Experts believe it is the pandemic’s “perfect storm”, continued isolation and reliance on social media that have caused the new phenomenon
Professor Dale ruled out Tourette’s disease as a cause of the epidemic because it is four times more common in boys and appears slowly from a young age.
He said the key factor appears to be the stress of the pandemic combined with the apparent use of TikTok and other apps – which is forcing young women’s bodies to “fail”.
“Girls all over the world have been using similar expressions – that’s what led us to believe that social media is a connection to what’s going on,” he said.
The professor pointed to the mimicking of TikTok videos showing tiks being broadcast around the world – with 16-year-old Michaela admitting seeing the clips had triggered her behavior and even seen her reflect it.
She has now “fully recovered”, with Professor Dale saying the disorder is “definitely” something that can be overcome but admitting that only 20 per cent of his patients contracted the illness.
He estimates hundreds of thousands of girls around the world could be suffering from the same disease as a result of the global pandemic’s “perfect storm.”