A combination of pandemic lockdowns and videos uploaded to TikTok is being blamed for a huge rise in mostly young women displaying bizarre “tics” and uncontrollable swearing.
In some cases, the Tourette’s syndrome like condition has become so bad that teenagers have filmed themselves banging their heads into furniture or even slapping other people.
Outbursts also include repeatedly saying words that have little meaning or no context, doing rude gestures or making popping noises.
“There’s a fiercely independent young girl just trapped within her own head, within her own body. It’s really hard to watch up,” said the mum of 14-year-old Metallyka Torzillo on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night.
The footage then showed Metallyka slapping, albeit not with full force, her mother across the face.
“I was anticipating that one,” Metallyka’s mum told 60 Minutes’ Sarah Abo.
The teenager has now been diagnosed with both Tourette’s and a functional neurological disorder.
Metallyka said she often had no control over tics which manifested as “yelling, screaming, hitting, pinching, biting and spitting”.
She added that lockdown and isolation had affected her badly over the last few years.
Mikayla Kolbe is another teen who suddenly found herself uncontrollable shouting, lashing out and with verbal and other tics.
At one point Mikayla was taken to hospital but doctors were baffled at how she presented.
“At the hospital it was just this unknown thing that was happening and they were all kind of scared, which made me like a bit scared as well,” said Mikayla.
For nine months, Mikayla swore, shouted, threw objects and even did handstands repetitively. At one point Mikayla tried to bite her own finger off.
“It was quite distressing for everyone around me at that point in time as well. And I was constantly on edge,” she said.
Paediatric neurologist at Sydney’s Children’s Hospital at Westmead Professor Russell Dale told the program he first started seeing the condition in early 2020 as the pandemic began.
He now says there are tens of thousands of young people displaying symptoms worldwide.
It was curious because Tourette syndrome usually begins gradually and at a younger age, wereas these new patients were in their teens and almost all were female.
“Some of the tics were similar, but some of them were definitely different, Prof Dale said.
“There were quite violent movements of the arms, sometimes hitting themselves.
“And also the vocalisations – so the repetitive noises were different rather than just simple noises, were much more complicated words and phrases, which are quite bizarre.
“I hadn’t really heard things like that before.”
One of the patients had a habit of shouting at passers-by that she was the missing child Madeleine McCann and she was being kidnapped by her parents.
Prof Dale said the pandemic and isolation may be one factor behind the rise in tic ailments. Especially for some young people already struggling with anxiety and stress.
“If you’re chronically stressed, the body starts to fail and struggles to cope and that’s what we think is going on.”
TikTok link to tics
But Prof Dale said social media might play a role too. On TikTok, for instance, there are billions of posts showing people with Tourette’s or tics.
Some of the tics being seen across the world are identical. The theory is that some were picked up from watching videos of other people.
“There were similar phrases using repeatedly by girls across the world, in Australia and in America, and it was that made us think that social media was a link in what was going on,” said Prof Dale.
“And I think it became almost like a contagion or they started to mimic or do these tics.
“There is something called suggestibility which means if you see something you’re more likely to do it.”
Mikayla is now fully recovered from her episode.
But many people with the new tics have not managed to brush them away. Prof Dale said only 20 per cent of the patients he’d seen were yet to be fully recovered.
“So that means 80 per cent are continuing to have these ticks, some quite severely.”
A decrease in seeing friends face-to-face and an increase in relying on social media during the pandemic had created a “perfect storm”, he said, which had allowed the disorder to flourish.