Could social media ‘Tourette’s influencers’ be responsible for a surge in the condition?

What a long way we’ve come. During my teens, the BBC aired infamous QED documentary John’s Not Mad, about a boy from Galashiels with severe Tourette’s syndrome. It accidentally became a cult comedy classic. School playgrounds the next day rang to the sound of pupils gleefully imitating poor John’s uncontrollable swearing. 

Former Gogglebox star Scarlett Moffatt tries her hand at presenting - Channel 4

© Channel 4
Former Gogglebox star Scarlett Moffatt tries her hand at presenting – Channel 4

Nowadays our understanding of neurological matters is utterly transformed, as proven by Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery: Scarlett Moffatt Investigates (Channel 4)This film was sincere and sensitive – although not without moments of levity. When Moffatt tucked into tea and cake, 16-year-old Tourette’s sufferer Betsy exclaimed: “Miss Piggy, oink oink!” To her credit, Moffatt got the giggles and nearly choked on her Victoria sponge.

Former Gogglebox favourite Moffatt explained how the last 18 months have seen a perplexing outbreak of Tourette’s among young Britons, particularly girls. Specialist clinics have reported an exponential rise in referrals for verbal and physical tics which appear to have developed overnight. Some theories suggest this medical anomaly was caused by isolation and mental health issues during lockdown. Localised clusters of cases raised the possibility that it could even be “contagious”, akin to mass hysteria. 

To investigate the surprise phenomenon, Moffatt travelled the UK in search of answers. Why her? Well, this was one of those “celebrity embarks on a personal journey” documentaries which are all the rage right now. For the first time, Moffatt publicly discussed her own facial tics, which developed when she was 11 and already dealing with crippling anxiety and her father’s cancer diagnosis.

She met teenagers who’d recently been diagnosed with the condition, the families grappling with it and psychiatrists treating it. Moffatt also delved into the growing trend for “Tourette’s influencers” who share their symptoms on TikTok and YouTube. Some have become hugely successful doing so, clocking up thousands of followers and millions of video views. One distressing sequence saw Ryan Stevens, aka @tourettes_lad_official, fall to his knees during a tic attack, convulse with involuntary back spasms and start head-butting the floor. Looking on helplessly, Moffatt was upset and clearly terrified.

She soon found herself in the middle of a circular debate about social media. Sceptics accused influencers of capitalising on the condition and exacerbating problems. The power of suggestibility might make impressionable youngsters more susceptible. Some even seemed to be faking it for clicks. Influencers grew defensive, insisting they were merely trying to raise awareness and build a supportive community. As the narrative disappeared down this rabbit hole, the programme suddenly felt like it belonged on BBC Three.

In her documentary debut, Moffatt made for an emotionally intelligent, engagingly warm guide. Unfortunately, the film ultimately fell between two stools. It didn’t explore her own condition in sufficient depth to be a personal odyssey. It didn’t probe the wider problem rigorously enough to be a weighty documentary. “It’s been really hard,” Moffatt concluded. “I’ve got new-found respect for Louis Theroux.” Us too, Scarlett, us too.

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