Viral Challenge Crazes

Online crazes like the Tide Pod Challenge are dangerous, but are they really as pervasive as we think?

As the father of a teenager and as executive director of the Maryland Poison Center, Bruce Anderson knows about the bizarre, potentially dangerous teen fads of the past few years—fads like swallowing laundry pods, snorting condoms and swallowing spoonfuls of cinnamon.

But Anderson also knows that while these crazes are potentially dangerous, they are not as widespread as some media reports suggest—and not unlike the teen fads of bygone days.
“When it was hot and heavy (a few years ago), we had more calls from the media about the cinnamon challenge than we did people actually doing it,” says Anderson, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. “I don’t know that it’s any different from what kids have done in years past—like car-surfing 10 or 15 years ago,” he adds. “They’re just being egged on by a much larger audience now because of social media.”

Anderson’s perspective is not unique. Interviews with adolescent health experts across the region reveal agreement that the often-alarming media reports about the teen crazes might suggest that they are far more popular than they really are.

“Most kids are not doing this,” says Kathryn Mattison, manager of the Adolescent and Family Services Program of the Anne Arundel County Department of Health. Mattison, after being asked about the trends, polled her therapists and concluding there was “not much happening here.”

“I won’t say these things don’t exist,” she says, noting that the department might not hear about some instances. “But I will say it’s rare that kids are actually acting on these challenges. And, [the popularity] is usually brief.”

Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, child health medical director at the Howard County Health Department, echoed that assessment. “I’m not aware of these being a major concern in Howard County,” she says. “That’s not to say this doesn’t occur, we just haven’t heard of it.”

Similarly, Calvert County health officials say that their Behavioral Health Division’s prevention unit gathers information about risky behaviors and has therapists in all
of the schools, but these crazes have not popped up on their radar screen.

“We are not hearing about any of these behaviors occurring,” according to Doris McDonald, Calvert County’s director of behavioral health.
From available evidence, the local scene mirrors the national scene where these teen fads are concerned. Snopes.com, the fact-checking website, investigated the condom-snorting “craze” and, in an April 2018 posting, declared it “mostly false.”

While reliable local statistics on these fads are impossible to come by, the American Association of Poison Control Centers does keep national figures on some of them.

Among Their Findings

From 2013 through the first few months of 2018, one intentional condom inhalation was reported nationwide among the 0–19 age group. It happened in 2013 and no “major effect” was reported.

For the same time period and the same age group, 203 intentional cinnamon-swallowing cases were reported. Only one of them resulted in a major effect (not a death), and the number of incidents has dropped dramatically since 2014.

As for laundry-detergent-swallowing, about 57,000 cases were reported to the association during the same time period. But that figure includes both intentional and accidental ingestion, and the organization believes most reported cases involved toddlers or young children who swallowed the detergent pods accidentally. Those numbers suggest that the condom-snorting challenge, at the very least, has been exaggerated in media reports, according to association spokesman Edward Walrod. However, he notes, the numbers also show that “teens and those under the age of 13 have a risk of exposure to potentially toxic substances, and they’re not always thinking all the way through when they decide to intentionally expose themselves to these substances.”

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Long List of Crazes

The list of teen crazes drawing attention over the last several years is lengthy. Besides condom snorting, cinnamon swallowing and detergent swallowing (often called the “Tide pod challenge”), it includes the Salt and Ice Challenge, in which teens douse their skin with salt and then apply ice; the Hot Pepper Challenge, which involves downing red hot chili peppers; and the Fire Spray Challenge, in which participants exhale a combustible substance and light it on fire.
As the names imply, most of these take the form of social media challenges: Someone acts out the behavior in a video and posts it online for others to see. And that is what sets these crazes apart from the risky adolescent fads of years past.

“Adolescent challenges have been around for a very, very long time, and YouTube has just expanded the audience exponentially,” says Mattison. “You have this global audience that is very seductive to adolescents. The audience is big, but the people doing the behaviors is small.”

A 2017 blog post on teensafe.com, a teen-monitoring service, wrote that the “reckless stupidity of teens has been exasperating parents since the beginning of time” and that social media “only enhances it.“

“As quickly as these challenges come into the limelight and fade, new ones will be created and brought to a social media frenzy,” notes the article (teensafe.com/blog/why-are-social-media-challenges-popular-teens), which also lists the “10 most dangerous social media challenges.”

While reports of full-blown crazes are almost unanimously pooh-poohed by local health experts, those same experts agree that parents should discuss the online challenges with their teens. “I think most kids don’t do these things, but you don’t know unless you ask,” Howard County’s Dougé says. “This is an opportunity to talk to kids about what they know, and then talk about ways to mitigate and prevent their exposure to those things.”

The challenges also offer an opportunity to delve into your child’s social media life. “From a parent’s perspective, you want to be aware of your child’s online life,” Mattison says.

Conversations with your child, she adds, should be curious rather than reactive. “You might ask if they’ve seen any of these challenges online, or what types of challenges are currently popular,” she says. “That way, you’re asking teens to educate you, so it sets the stage for a discussion without the defensive barriers that can go up when teens are expecting a lecture.”

Health Issues Worth the Worry
While the experts agree a conversation on the social media challenges is worthwhile, they also agree that parents of adolescents have more pressing issues to worry about—such health challenges as e-cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, mental health problems and sexually transmitted diseases.

“We know that adolescents, especially early adolescents, are prone to trying something we might consider a little bit wacky,” says Dr. Krishna Upadhya, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. “But I think there are other health risks that as a parent and as a pediatrician I am more concerned about.”
For instance, Upadhya says new studies show that marijuana use is growing among adolescents. Also, in her own practice she has noted that teens are often repulsed by traditional cigarettes but show a keen interest in e-cigarettes, especially flavored e-cigarettes. “As a pediatrician who takes care of adolescents, these types of substance abuse are something we definitely need to be more concerned about and talking to kids about,” Upadhya says.

Perhaps the most sensible take on these bizarre challenges is Snopes.com’s comment on condom-snorting: “Let the record show that while we pooh-pooh the media’s claims that condom snorting rises to the level of a ‘trend,’ we urge anyone tempted to try it to think hard about the possible consequences, which could, in fact, be dire.”
Teens trying any of these challenges, or friends or parents who witness the attempt, are urged to call the national Poison Help Hotline at 800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in their phone.

—Pete Pichaske