Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery review – is Tik Tok really causing the boom in tics? | Television

It sounds like the plot of a woozy arthouse film: cooped up while a deadly disease rages outside, teens display neurological anomalies. They swear, jerk, groan, throw objects in the air, and blurt out their basest thoughts. The behaviour seems to some extent contagious.

This is, in fact, Britain in the 2020s, where the Covid era has brought a startling uptick in the number of young people presenting with symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. In Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery: Scarlett Moffatt Investigates (Channel 4), the former Goggleboxer and I’m a Celebrity champion proves to be the ideal presenter for a documentary on a medical conundrum made more complex by the effect of social media on malleable minds.

Near the start, Moffatt tells a personal anecdote that fits the subject perfectly. When she was a child, a science lesson taught her how human lungs work, at a time when her father was undergoing cancer treatment. Moffatt developed a tic where she exaggerated her breathing: she was hyper-aware of every breath in and out. Then when her dad got the all-clear, the problem evaporated.

A doctor at a child and adolescent mental health services clinic tells Moffatt he used to see four or five new cases of Tourette’s a year. Now it’s the same number every week. Moffatt sits in on a consultation with an 11-year-old whose tics seem to have coincided with a nerve-racking return to school, post-lockdown.

So is it that Tourette’s can be triggered by stress, and generalised stress is a side-effect of the collective trauma of the pandemic? Probably, but some of Moffatt’s other interviewees remind us why the syndrome has been the subject of so many absorbing documentaries, from 1989’s John’s Not Mad, to Channel 4’s superb 2020 film The Mum Who Got Tourette’s. It is a debilitating, embarrassing condition, and yet it can add something to a person as well as taking something away, and it’s often fascinatingly unclear exactly how involuntary the tics are, especially the more entertaining ones.

When Moffatt accepts a large slice of homemade cake from 16-year-old Betsy’s mother, and Betsy exclaims “Miss Piggy! Oink, oink!”, it is objectively hilarious, as it is when 14-year-old Nicole announces: “My mum sucks dick – only on Thursdays!” This element of observing Tourette’s patients – the undeniably exciting possibility that it is liberating a forbidden part of their brains – intensifies when Moffatt examines the phenomenon that sets this documentary apart: Tourette’s is huge on social media.

Holly has 864,000 TikTok followers keeping tabs on her funny outbursts; during Moffatt’s visit, she records herself holding a book as if to read it, knowing that at some point she will hurl it across the room. You can’t avoid wondering whether a behaviour is still involuntary when it is being deliberately captured on video for public consumption, even if we also see Holly bravely posting footage of the severe “tic attacks” that show how profoundly unfunny it is to live with Tourette’s.

Online, there is always a tribe you can join, regardless of how beneficial membership might ultimately be. A young person sharing their experience of Tourette’s on TikTok’s tic attack feels less alone, less of a “freak” – or perhaps more of one, in a context where being a freak brings validation rather than scorn. When Moffatt meets a gang of social media creators with Tourette’s, the sense of community is powerful, as is their shared disgust when she puts forward the programme’s most disturbing idea: just as Moffatt once acquired a breathing tic when her focus was drawn to her lungs during a period of vulnerability, so TikTok viewers struggling with lockdown might be susceptible to suggestion when watching Tourette’s content online. Glen (4.4 million TikTok followers) insists that suggestibility can’t extend to those without an existing diagnosis: “We’ve got it. People who haven’t got it can’t suddenly get it by watching us.”

It is not clear how true this is. Interviewed by Moffatt, a neurologist blames social media for exacerbating the recent outbreak, explaining that drawing attention to tics and discussing them is the precise opposite of the best medical advice. Yet, Nicole’s mother tells Moffatt about the countless appreciative messages she has received from frightened parents, thanking her for destigmatising what their children are going through.

As a 21st-century celebrity, whose success is based on being herself in artificial environments, Moffatt is well placed to ride over all these contradictions, treating the laughs and the pain with a steady, concerned bemusement. Tourette’s has always been wickedly elusive; mix it with the febrile hysteria of Covid and the ungovernable chaos of social media, and bemusement is the only possible response.

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