Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic paediatricians and child mental health practitioners have recorded a stark increase in the prevalence of tic disorders among children and teenagers.
Some of those who were already diagnosed with a tic disorder, such as Tourette’s syndrome, noticed an increase in tic symptoms during the lockdown, but a mystery that has gripped doctors is the marked increase in sudden onset tics in children who hadn’t previously experienced them – particularly in teenage girls.
In a new Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery: Scarlett Moffatt Investigates, the former Gogglebox star travels around the country to delve into the mystery, meeting some of those who have been recently diagnosed with the condition, scientists grappling with the new phenomenon, and a group of Tourette’s TikTok influencers.
This is a rather personal journey for 31-year-old Moffatt to go on as she developed facial tics herself when she was 12 years old.
For two years she experienced tics that were a result of suffering from Bell’s palsy, a time she describes as “really scary”.
“It was actually quite a scary time, because I remember not feeling in control of my own body, because I had Bell’s palsy as well,” Moffatt says.
“When I was at school and I had the facial tics, I’d try and suppress them so I didn’t stand out, which is basically like holding a hiccup in. As soon as I’d get home they’d just all come out.
“It was just really scary. It’s scary as a teenager anyway, because your body’s changing, and you have all these hormones, but when you feel like you’re not in control of them, I just remember feeling like: ‘God, is this ever gonna stop? Am I ever gonna be in control again?’”
One doctor Moffatt speaks to for the documentary tells her that, ordinarily, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with traditional Tourette’s.
However, he and his colleagues have seen an increase in young girls presenting with tic disorders, suggesting this may have been caused by loneliness, isolation and anxiety during the Covid lockdowns.
“During lockdown, lots of young boys were gaming, so they were still socialising, still had a purpose to get up and still had a hobby,” Moffatt explains.
“Whereas young girls tend to be more social butterflies, and then they, all of a sudden, were confined in the house.
“During lockdown, rightly so, everyone’s attention was on the vulnerable and elderly, because at that time that was who needed our support.
But I think in doing that, the children and teenagers sort of were left to their own devices, and I feel like, actually, we didn’t realise the impact that it would have on young people.”
This hunger for social interaction led many young people to turn to social media where, particularly on TikTok, Tourette’s influencers were surging in popularity.
While some argue that watching content relating to tics could make the disorder worse in some sufferers, Moffatt says that she believes it “can only be a good thing”.
“The big thing when I had tics was that I felt alone, I didn’t really know any other young girls with it,” she says.
“But I think I’m lucky that I have got a really good support network, I always have, but I’m aware that other kids haven’t got that.
When I’ve been speaking to all the influencers in this documentary, how they’re helping, they’re getting a bit of a rough time at the minute, specialists saying they don’t know whether they’re actually adding to the problem.
“But I think, as a kid, if I didn’t have that support network there wouldn’t have been anyone. I think it can only be a good thing that more people are coming out and talking about their experiences so that people don’t feel alone.”
Through speaking to those who experience tics, Moffatt answers questions that many people have about the disorder but don’t often feel they can ask.
For example, she asks TikTok creator Holly Ann Rutherford, who goes by @hollyannmaria, whether it’s okay to laugh at some of the humorous vocal tics. She says yes, but only – crucially – as long as she’s being laughed with, not at.
However, the programme also shows a darker, scarier side to ticcing. Many of the interviewees speak of ‘tic attacks’ – bouts of severe, non-suppressible, disabling tics which can last from a few minutes to several hours – and viewers see a particularly distressing moment where TikTok star Ryan Stevens, known as @tourettes_lad_official on the platform, suffers a painful tic attack which leaves him convulsing on the ground.
He describes the sensation as like being struck with a cattle prod in the back, and candidly discusses the acute physical pain that comes with a serious tic attack.
“I watched a lot of documentaries and shows that showed tics and Tourette’s before I started doing the documentary, and I’d never seen anything like that before,” Moffatt says.
“Being there first-hand, it was awful. We all cried after. Ryan’s was really, really bad that day, like it was almost as if his body wasn’t his own.
“That’s the thing that I want to get across is that I think the media has portrayed tics and Tourette’s to be sort of a funny disorder – and yes, at times, it can be entertaining – but it’s also really, really serious and affects people’s relationships and lives and even getting a job.
“Seeing someone in pain like that – it was awful.”
Despite the challenging subject matter, Moffatt says she loved making the documentary, meeting people and telling their stories – and now she’s hungry for more.
“Genuinely, even though it’s such a hard topic, we had such a good time doing it. And even though there were moments of sadness and tears, we did laugh for the majority of it, we did have such a good time.
“I really do want to make more – I feel like I’m at the right stage. It’s always been on my bucket list to do one, because I am such a lover of documentaries, and it feels like the natural progression to do that.
“I just find it really fascinating. And I hope that other people watch it and find it equally as fascinating.”
Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery: Scarlett Moffatt Investigates is on Channel 4 at 10 pm on Tuesday, July 19.