Editor’s note: This post has been updated with information about the Tide pod challenge.
In the old days, kids challenged each other to swallow live goldfish.
Today’s teens have gone a few steps further, filming themselves trying these and other risky activities:
- Pass-out or choking challenge
- Cinnamon challenge (eating a spoonful of cinnamon without drinking water)
- Condom snorting challenge
- Ingesting alcohol in nontraditional ways, including vodka-soaked tampons, vodka eyeballing and alcohol enemas (teens call it “butt chugging”)
- Salt and ice challenge (pouring salt on wet skin and holding an ice cube over the area)
- Beezin’ (applying Burt’s Bees lip balm to the eyelids to intensify a high)
- Deodorant challenge (spraying aerosol deodorant on the skin for a long time at close range)
- Tide pod challenge
News stories have reported permanent brain damage, choking, tissue damage, blindness and death resulting from these challenges. Dr. Thomas McIntee, a Marshfield Clinic pediatric dermatologist, said he’s seen patients with blisters and patterned pigmentation caused by challenges involving the skin.
Tide pod challenge
Detergent pods have been on the radar for parents because their coloring looks like candy to young children. Since 2012, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has reported eight deaths of children five or younger from ingesting the packets. More recently, eating or biting into Tide pods has become a YouTube challenge among teens.
Tide pods are filled with chemicals to remove dirt, grime, grease, fats and blood out of fabric and clothes, including alcohol, dematomium (cousin to ammonia), fatty acids, amylase, subtilisin and mananase (an enzyme that breaks down grease and fat). If ingested or exposed to skin, detergent pods can cause several medical issues like erosive burns to tissue, breathing problems from aerosolized particles, nausea, vomiting and gastritis, which are chemical burns in the stomach. Inhaling some of these products can lead to fluid in the lungs with loss of surfactant, which keeps small air sacks (alveoli) open, and decrease oxygen exchange across the blood air membranes, causing chemical pneumonia.
“These are clearly toxic agents,” said Dr. James Meyer, an adolescent medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic. “Teens should not be coaxed to try or be bored enough that they should want to take risks of health consequences. We want teens to grow up healthy and happy and not cave in to the brief exhilaration of a risky fad that could have some serious life-long consequences.”
Dangerous decisions based in biology
Dangerous teen trends are mind boggling to adults but don’t seem that risky to the youths who try them, Dr. Meyer said.
There’s a scientific reason why some teens don’t say no to eating a Tide pod or spoonful of cinnamon even though logic tells adults it’s a bad idea.
The thrill-seeking parts of the brain are more active in adolescents and the judgment and self-regulation part isn’t fully developed, Meyer said. Judgment is impaired when people are sleep deprived, as teens often are. Youths aren’t able to weigh pros and cons as well as adults and are more likely to do dangerous things.
Even if they see a situation is risky, teens often believe they won’t get hurt.
On top of all that, teens want to be accepted and remembered by peers, even if it’s for doing something negative or dangerous.
Teens who have poor impulse control or self-image are easily influenced by their peers and can get involved in a cycle of one-upping their friends by doing something more outrageous,” Meyer said.
Brainstorm what teens can do when a friend suggests trying a dangerous trend.
They can tell friends to go ahead without them (others questioning the decision usually follow) or they won’t be allowed to use the car if they get caught. Or they can suggest another trendy challenge that isn’t inherently dangerous, like water bottle flipping or Frisbee trick shots.
McIntee urged parents and kids to be wary of homemade recipes for slime, which seem harmless but may contain skin-irritating ingredients like borax.
If your teen is a thrill seeker, suggest activities that can be done safely with instruction, like rock climbing, rappelling or snowboarding. Sports, theater or playing an instrument may satisfy your teen’s need for recognition from peers.
Talk to teens
Knowing your teen’s friends and asking about the videos they watch on social media may clue you in to whether dangerous trends are on their radar. Ask what they think of videos showing people trying risky stunts and share your own thoughts.
Talking to teens about your family values and their strengths and talents will improve their confidence to make good decisions.
Your children may not make it through their teenage years without trying anything risky, but continued communication may keep them from doing something extremely dangerous.