The moral panic of digital hysteria: what happens when sick girls become visible online.

from ‘’ exhibition by

In September 2022, the Daily Mail published an , “Addicted to being sad: Teenage girls with invisible illnesses — known as ‘Spoonies’ — post Tik Toks of themselves crying or in hospital to generate thousands of likes — as experts raise concerns over internet-induced wave of mass anxiety”.

The headline sums up the author’s theory — “look [click], that’s the girl who pretends to be sick to get attention!”. She uses our Internet to spread her digital hysteria with catastrophic consequences to the existing social order.

I know that girl so well.

She is too much, but never quite enough. Her pain is ever present, but it is never 100% believable. The moment she tries to reclaim its narrative — she becomes the symbol of digital hysteria.

#invisibleillnes #chronicpain — the digital crumbs of her resilience — are constantly scrutinised and vilified, and her hysterical self is publicly humiliated, — in the end, even her safe community becomes a public battleground for girls’ shaming.

I am that girl.

More like, I am a woman in my late 30s — still trying to figure out how to reclaim and tell the story of my pain [online and offline] — without being told I’m faking it, attention seeking, or being hysterical.

the bleeding body by HYSTERA

I work as ar and an exploring the topics of invisible illness — mainly focusing on endometriosis — the gender health gap, and medical misogyny. Seeing the DailyMail zoning-in on the invisible illness community and in particular, teenage girls as the target for left me baffled, to say the least.

The article seems to capitalise on ) vulnerable moment of grieving her former healthy life. It implies that some girls compete with each other for who is the ‘sickest’ one by “posting videos of themselves crying or lying listless in hospital beds racks up hundreds of thousands of likes”.

Why are ‘sick and suffering’ teenage girls’ accused of creating catastrophic internet-induced wave of mass anxiety — and whose anxiety are we talking about? Why does digital hysteria cause so much moral panic?

I’ll try to tackle these questions.

digital girls: why don’t you just give us some happy scrolls?

from ‘’ exhibition by

Girls are meant to be girls — online and offline. They should have a good time, and look aesthetically pleasing to the eye (not too good of course, or they get slut shamed).

Digital capitalism needs girls.

Girls should produce content that is of scrollable value — especially when it makes us hopeful about the future. For example, #girlboss #thisgirlcan social media is meant to provide us with glimpses of hope and aspiration.

If the future is Girl — we want it to feel good about what She represents.

These so-called have become the core fabric of the modern digital society that often puts too much emphasis on girls becoming ‘our success stories’. We want girls to be smart, curious, brave, fast, confident, body-positive, ambitious fighters for a better future for all of us. These ‘good content girls’ are like smart investments that should lead to a return in the future.

If we can dream it, she should be it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love scrolling through inspirational feminst content. It’s important girls and women get the visibility we deserve. The question is on whose terms is this visibility taking place, and who describes it as deservable.

What happens when girls and women decide to take matters into their own hands and potentially share unattractive stories of pain? If they are reclaiming parts of digital capitalism to showcase a more realistic, brutal, and unjust picture of the present and the future?

Well, according to the Daily Mail, this might result in mass hysteria, where self-obsessed, attention-seeking, hysterical women inflict suffering on themselves in the name of digital visibility.

The power of digital hysteria (and the gender based violence that comes with it)

“What’s wrong with her now? Is she faking it and what is she trying to gain from it?”.

Growing up, I’d often hear people around me discussing my pain. I was a healthy looking young woman, what was all that fuss about?

The narrative of my chronic, invisible pain has always been a social construct, interpreted based on the rigid Eastern European norms of femininity and hysteria.

“Alicja, a typical hysteryczka (a hysterical woman in Polish),” a random family member confidently summed up my pain, before even I had any informed awareness of what was going on inside my body.

In 2015, I finally got my diagnosis — endometriosis. My pain became real. This is when I also joined my first Endometriosis Facebook support group. The online #endometriosis #invisibleillness community has supported me through some of the most difficult moments in my life. I’m forever grateful. But, this didn’t alleviate my pain much, since the condition is still a mystery, largely due to being considered period pain/hysteria for centuries.

“Medical Misogynyst: he’ll tell you what your pain is all about” by

Your pain is only real when you make other people believe in it.

Later in my life, I learned about the importance of the performativity of one’s pain as a female patient (I wrote about it ) and its ‘believability score’. In her book, “Doing Harm”, Maya Dusenbery describes how girls and women’s pain ‘believability score’ might be skewed by their socioeconomic status, race, age, migration status, and many other intersectional factors. For example, “A white Ivy league college student is more likely to be seen as anxiety-ridden, while a woman of color is more likely to be stereotyped as a drug seeker”. All of these attitudes are obviously underpinned by centuries of medical misogyny and the notion of hysteria.

is an uncomfortable topic with a history of women being degraded to incomplete, penis-envy subhumans who get sick because of being unfeminine, intellectually ambitious and “defective in proper womanly submission and selfless”.

Since ancient Greece, hysteria has become for ‘everything that men find mysterious or unmanageable in women’. Although it is no longer an official medical diagnosis, we still use it as a lens to judge the gendered nature of one’s pain performance.

The fact that young women call out medical misogyny on social media seems to be particularly triggering to the Daily Mail readers. The combination of social media, resentful and angry young women, bodily autonomy, medical trauma, challenging medical status quo — feels like too much to handle for many.

These types of comments are normal for those of us who decide to speak up online. Because of these and other forms of digital forms of gender-based violence, many have no choice but to erase themselves from the online space and make their #invsiblepain and their presence even more invisible.

[networked] medical misogyny by

Digital hysteria and communities of resilience: your pain matters.

#invsibleillness communities started as a DIY/grassroots digital movement, but they continue to evolve and sustain themselves as communities that symbolise strength, hope, and incredible amounts of resilience.

Since 2015, the #invsibleillness online landscape has changed drastically. At first, it was just Facebook groups, with time, the rise of social media has led to many previously invisible conditions getting at least some recognition they deserve.

Online community groups, patient advocacy forums, support meetings or practical resources — the collective nature of our digital hysteria, helped us to self-organise and create new ways of meaningful and sometimes even life-saving support.

have shown that online communities provide meaningful support and mostly reliable information when it comes to learning about invisible illnesses and symptoms management.

Digital hysteria has become our collective #invisbleillness advocacy and collective care movement.

Our message is clear:

“we’re here, our pain is real and it’s time to recognise it for what it is — a systemic and multigenerational form of oppression that has led to the existing gender gap and normalisation of medical misogyny”

As with any activism or social change, the process can be messy and face aggressive pushback. Still, I’m grateful and proud to be part of this collective digital hysteria.

The future is Girl — I want her to feel valued, respected, and comfortable to be hysterical if needed.

endometriosis: the evil uterus by

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Alicja Pawluczuk

Alicja Pawluczuk

Dr Alicja Pawluczuk (AKA hy_stera) writes about digital humanities, feminism, and social justice → +