Have you had a very important conversation with your teens about the proper use of household cleaners?
That's the message of load after load of news reports about the latest internet craze, the "Tide Pod Challenge." The resulting waves of panic stem from a January 16 report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers about the increase in teenagers exposed to Tide Pods. According to that report, there have been 39 reported cases of intentional single-use laundry packet exposure among teenagers in 2018.
That number does represent a rise over previous years. In fact, there have been as many cases reported in January 2018 than there were in all of 2016. That increase has led concerned parents, YouTube personalities, and one NFL player to discourage teens from eating the pods.
All of this media attention is already infuriating for the way it maligns all teenagers as reckless and stupid. Even if the coverage wasn't washing over teens' motivations for taking the challenge, and even if it wasn't stoking so much unnecessary fear about household objects, it would still be inaccurate because it's just not clear that teens are actually eating the pods.
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story with the headline "Yes, People Really Are Eating Tide Pods. No, It's Not Safe," making it one more news outlet in a chorus raising the alarm. NBC News attempted to explain "Why some teens are intentionally ingesting Tide pods." Mashable, while reasonably suggesting that we all calm down about laundry packet exposure, slipped into the same linguistic trap in the second half of its headline: "Very, very very few teens are trying to eat Tide Pods."
All of this news coverage makes two issues clear: no one agrees about the capitalization of "Tide Pod," and everyone is similarly confused about the definition of eating.
Nearly all of the articles and television segments covering Tide Pods quote the AAPCC's assertion about how dangerous single-use laundry packets are: "The resulting health implications from misuse can be serious. Known potential effects include seizure, pulmonary edema, respiratory arrest, coma, and even death."
All of these consequences of swallowing single-use laundry packets have been observed among pediatric and elderly populations. As of yet, we have no knowledge of which symptoms were reported by the teenagers included in the AAPCC report. So, is it just a matter of time before one enterprising YouTuber takes the challenge too far?
That's possible, of course, but highly unlikely. Knowyourmeme, which offers the most exhaustive timeline of the Tide Pod Challenge, demonstrates that for years it was merely a satirical suggestion, perhaps brought on by the very medical studies that found a rise in laundry detergent injuries among children. The challenge appears to have been issued in July 2017 by a Redditor who offered others to bite into the pods.
Biting appears to be what most of the people in the videos were doing.
Most of the YouTube laundry pod challenges have been taken down, so we cannot be completely assured that no teens were attempting to eat the pods on camera. There are still compilation videos to be found for the curious. In those compilations, people are definitely biting.
That behavior is consistent with the average YouTube "challenge" video, where eating is not always the goal. What sells are people biting into something and then sputtering and gasping as they spit it out. Other videos in the challenge oeuvre demonstrate that participants rarely swallow the item: the clicks and shares appear to stem from the spewing clouds of cinnamon, hot pepper, or, now, laundry detergent.
Why does it matter that teens are only biting the pods? When we claim teens are eating the pods, we make the situation sound more dangerous than it is. Children who bite into a pod aren't likely to understand that liquid will gush out of it. Surprised, they sometimes swallow the detergent, which can lead to escalating and extremely dangerous injuries. Teens who bite into a pod know exactly what's going to happen, which is why they are filming themselves doing it.