Young women across Australia are being stricken with a mysterious neurological condition – with experts fearing social media addiction and pandemic stress could trigger the problem.
Tourette’s syndrome-like disorder sees teens suffering from uncontrollable ‘tics’ – which include explosions, jolts, pops, noises, swearing, kicking and banging.
Doctors are also witnessing the phenomenon around the world where previously healthy young women have reported suddenly feeling violent physical and verbal impulses.
But what is causing the rapid rise in cases is baffling parents and medical authorities.
One possible explanation is that anxiety and stress resulting from long periods of isolation, coupled with obsessions with apps like TikTok, may have been the catalyst.
“This bright, brave, fiercely independent young girl is just trapped in her own body, in her own head. It’s really hard to watch,’ Melissa told 60 Minutes of her daughter Metallica – before the teenager slapped her mum.
Metallica slaps her mum Melissa – one of many tics the teenager suffers from due to the new condition plaguing young Australian girls
Metallica said “lockdowns and not seeing my friends as much” made his tics worse. During the pandemic, her older sister Charlie also developed the same condition.
“When she gets her tics, I’ll walk away so it doesn’t trigger me and make it worse for her,” Charlie said.
Their family have chosen to view both disorders positively, saying some of their mannerisms are so absurd “you can’t help but laugh” – but the reality is far sadder.
Both Metallica and Charlie require constant care, with both suffering from extreme forms of the disease.
There has been a sharp rise in similarly reported cases throughout the pandemic, primarily among teenage girls who can see symptoms appear as quickly as overnight.
Doctors remain in the dark about its cause – but many believe it is directly linked to the social consequences of the lockdowns and social media addiction.
Michaela started suffering from extreme tics at the age of 14, so quickly that her parents immediately took her to the hospital.
“I was serving dinner, I heard noises and a scream and I saw her lying on the floor. I thought she was having a massive panic attack, then an arm was flying then a leg,’ her mum said.
She said she didn’t want to do this. It was really scary, really really scary.
Michaela was one of the first girls to suffer from the new disorder – terrifying her parents and doctors when she was first taken to hospital after the tics manifested overnight.
Michaela, now 16, was one of the first to suffer from the seemingly new condition – admitting doctors were ‘shocked’ and ‘frightened’ by her disorder.
The teenager did handstands, rolled on the floor and even did the splits – her school constantly calling her parents to inform them of new tics.
“I was constantly on edge,” she said.
Nicole, a 15-year-old Briton, began to suffer from her tics shortly before her 13th birthday – with minor facial twitches turning into violent physical and verbal outbursts.
Her mother said the most difficult of her mannerisms was that she would often shout “I’m Madeleine McCann, I’ve been kidnapped” in public.
Like many other cases, Nicole’s tics appeared during Covid when she was admittedly ‘very alone’.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself. You can’t see any friends or family, it wasn’t very nice to be there,’ she told 60 Minutes.
Professor Russell Dale – a pediatric neurologist at Westmead Hospital – said he heard of girls ‘all over the world’ suffering from similar conditions to the young women who were brought to him.
He said the first case he saw of the disease was in Michaela two years ago and it was ‘something different’ from anything he had witnessed before.
“There were quite violent movements, hitting each other, but also the vocalizations were different. Rather than just noises, there were complicated sentences – which was pretty weird, I’ve never seen that,’ he told the programme.
Experts believe it was the pandemic’s ‘perfect storm’, prolonged isolation and reliance on social media that brought on the new phenomenon
Prof Dale ruled out Tourette’s disease as the cause of the outbreak, as it is found four times more often in boys and comes on slowly from an early age.
He said the key factor appears to be the stress of the pandemic combined with the overt use of TikTok and other apps – causing young women’s bodies to “fail”.
“Girls all over the world used similar phrases – that’s what made us think social media was a link to what was going on,” he said.
The professor pointed to the imitation of TikTok videos showing tics being broadcast around the world – Michaela, 16, admitting that seeing the clips triggered her behavior and even saw her mirroring it.
She is now ‘fully recovered’, Prof Dale saying the disorder is ‘definitely’ something that can be overcome, but admitted that only 20% of his patients have cleared the condition.
He estimates that hundreds of thousands of girls around the world could suffer from the same disease as a result of the “perfect storm” of the global pandemic.