What is it about a dare that is so irresistible to kids? I remember having jalapeño eating contests with my friends in middle school. We would see who could eat the most jalapeño slices before needing a drink of milk to ease our tortured taste buds. It was innocent fun, and I cherish those playful years.
Meanwhile, in 2018, kids are poisoning themselves with laundry detergent. On Jan. 25, a Tennessee teen was accidentally shot in the head by a friend — all for the sake of a challenge. How did we get here?
With the advancement of social media, people were given the ability to showcase the popular tradition of daring friends to a variety of activities that have been dubbed “social media challenges.”
Over the years, there have been numerous challenges that have gone viral. Some of the frivolous and more popular ones included "The Mannequin Challenge," where people stand in poses while someone walks through the scene recording, and "The Running Man Challenge," a goofy dance popularized by two University of Maryland basketball players. Then, there was "The Water Bottle Flip Challenge," where children and teens tried to flip partially-filled water bottles and have them land upright. All pretty innocuous.
The most successful social media challenge and one of the few that reached multiple demographics was the "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge." Invented during the summer of 2014, the challenge involved pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over your head to promote awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease and encourage donations to the cause. The challenge went mainstream when now-disgraced television anchor Matt Lauer participated in it on the Today Show. Many celebrities followed suit, including Lebron James, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, and even former President George W. Bush. The Ice Bucket Challenge was a hit, raising an astounding $115 million for the ALS Association. It was a perfect combination of shallow amusement and meaningful charity.
Unfortunately, social media challenges have become darker lately. People, primarily teenagers, are hurting and sometimes even killing themselves. One dangerous challenge was the "Salt and Ice Challenge" — pressing an ice cube on skin sprinkled with salt, which in some cases led to second-degree burns. "The Hot Pepper Challenge" required eating a ghost pepper, up to 417 times hotter than the mild jalapeños I ate as a kid. Some teens just vomited, but others ended up in the emergency room. Finally, the horrifying "Fire Challenge" had kids cover themselves in a flammable liquid, light themselves on fire, and then jump into a shower or pool.
The most recent, moronic social media challenge to go viral is the "Tide Pod Challenge," where teenagers challenge each other to eat Tide laundry detergent pods. Kids are breaking the packets and squirting the detergent into their mouths, onto their pizzas, or sautéing them in frying pans. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal issues. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there have been 86 reported cases of 13- to 19-year-olds consuming single-load laundry detergent packets within the first three weeks of this year. This is in stark contrast to the 53 total cases in 2017.
Tide's parent company, Procter & Gamble, has been scrambling to stop the trend. P&G posted a video on its social media outlets of NFL star Rob Gronkowski decrying the viral challenge. “What the heck is going on people? Use Tide Pods for washing, not eating,” Gronkowski implores while standing in a laundry room laden with Tide products.
The ALS Ice Bucket and the Tide Pods challenges shouldn’t be grouped together. While both are social media challenges, their outcomes couldn’t be further apart. It’s sad that some teens are so desperate for attention that they are willing to poison themselves for it. Kids should aim to invent or join in the next ALS Challenge, not something useless, disturbing, or accidentally fatal. Even flipping a water bottle seems inspired compared to lighting yourself on fire.
Or they can just eat jalapeño slices.
Benjamin Calmenson is a Dallas native and a senior finance major at the University of Kansas.