Why are teens eating laundry pods?
As kids are further isolated, internet challenges help them connect and feel like part of something larger
A baby-faced boy with glasses stands in front of a camera smiling. Within seconds, he pops a brightly colored plastic pod in his mouth and bites down. As bluish goo oozes from his mouth and gives way to foam, his face contorts into a grimace. He looks like he’s going to be sick as he spits and coughs. The comment written across his video reads, “They doubted me.”
The Tide Pod challenge, which encourages kids and teens to film themselves eating laundry detergent pods and post the video online, is just one of many potentially dangerous “challenges” issued via the internet by kids and teens looking for likes and acceptance.
While some, like the mannequin challenge (kids record themselves standing still like mannequins while the song “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd plays in the background) and the ice bucket challenge from a few years ago, are fairly innocuous and silly, many like the hot stove coil challenge (which encourages kids to put their bare arms on hot stove coils) and the Tide pod challenge, can have long-lasting consequences and may even be deadly.
Laundry pods contain highly concentrated levels of caustic cleaning chemicals including hydrogen peroxide, ethanol and a cocktail of toxic polymer detergents. Ingesting these chemicals can lead to seizure, pulmonary edema, respiratory arrest, coma, and even death, according to a warning issued by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
“We cannot stress enough how dangerous this is to the health of individuals,” wrote the AAPPC in a statement on the Tide Pod challenge earlier this year.
The group was so concerned that it issued no less than three public warnings about the challenge between January and February.
According to their statement, since Tide introduced these pods in 2012, poison control centers across the country have received more than “50,000 calls relating to liquid laundry packet exposures.”
Up until this year, the AAPPC said, the pods had caused 10 deaths. Of those the majority were children younger than five and a couple were elderly people suffering from dementia. According to a statement issued by the AAPPC in January, “in 2016 and 2017, poison control centers handled 39 and 53 cases of intentional exposures, respectively, among 13- to 19-year olds.
“In the first 15 days of 2018 alone, centers have already handled 39 such intentional cases among the same age demographic. Ingestion accounted for 91 percent of these reported exposures.”
By late February, that number had jumped to 86 cases among the same age group.
As of this writing, no deaths had been reported as a result of the challenge and YouTube had started taking the videos down. But that’s not to say they aren’t still out there.
A quick Google search by any of these tech-savvy kids would have produced enough warnings to keep most people from trying to eat a laundry pod no matter how much it looks like candy. And yet, many did it, filmed it, put it online and passed those videos on until they went viral.
So then why are teens doing this?
“It is important to put these behaviors into a developmental context,” said Nicholas Mian, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and UNH-Manchester. “In middle school, kids naturally scramble to establish a social hierarchy – that’s why bullying behavior peaks during this time. In high school, the influence of peers becomes extremely important as kids work toward creating social networks, identities and romantic partners.
“Hence, these kids are constantly tuned-in with what others are doing and trying to keep up. In the last decade or so, this has shifted to being largely achieved through social media, and these challenges are perfect for that kind of dissemination.”
Lawrence A. Welkowitz, professor of psychology at Keene State College, said almost as important as asking why, it’s important to ask what is the reinforcement? What is the teen is getting out of eating a Tide Pod?
Welkowitz said it’s much more than getting attention. It’s about the teen feeling like he or she “has the opportunity to be part of something much larger – a cultural trend; something that connects them to something larger.”
This idea may be at the heart of why these video challenges hold so much sway. This generation of kids is much more isolated than teens were even 10 or 15 years ago, says William R. Hughen, district director of school counseling for the Hudson School District.
“Teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use is on a steep decline over the last 10 years,” he said, “but isolation, depression and suicide are on a sharp increase because kids are not going out as much. They are staying home and they are trying to find ways to socialize and make their place in the world, but they are doing it in isolation, so it’s, ‘what can I do on camera that’s funny, that will make me popular that shows that I’m not some nerd, that I want to take a risk.”
Hughen said they likely aren’t thinking of the consequences, partly because they don’t see the result of these online challenges. They don’t see the person going to the hospital or getting violently ill in most cases.
But even if they did, it’s not a given that this would make a difference.
“It is likely that kids do understand that there is some risk, that is what makes the challenge exciting and appealing,” Mian said. “But their understanding of the risk is probably more limited to the immediate effect of the challenge rather than long-term consequences. Their inability to understand the long-term consequences stems in part from the fact that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with planning and judgment, is not fully developed until adulthood.”
This is the part of the brain that helps us organize, plan and provides a simulation of the future, Welkowitz said.
“If someone says ‘I’d like you to try hot dog and onion ice cream‘,” he says, “your future simulator says, ‘gross, no thank you.’ That’s not developed in children. They are at higher risk.”
While kids and teens have always tried silly and sometimes dangerous stunts, we are at a place where they can see and get recognition by potentially tens and hundreds of thousands of their peers for pulling these stunts. More outrageous, more dangerous equals more clicks and likes. But parents can try to counteract the pull of these challenges.
What can I do?
First, talk to your kids, said Hughen. Ask them if they’ve heard of these challenges – do they know anyone who’s tried them and what do they think of them? Then, Hughen said, explain that your expectation is they will not do this behavior because it’s dangerous and could be fatal.
Hughen said with his teenage son, he’s created times to talk whenever he gets a chance. For example, he does homework with his son and does not allow his son to use his cell phone in the car on their way to and from places so that they can to talk to each other.
Hughen even created a challenge that he and his son could do together. Every Saturday they would go to a new restaurant searching for the best pancakes in the area. They even took pictures of the pancakes and posted them to their social media accounts.
He said this got his son interested and excited about going out on a Saturday morning, and it also gave them a chance just to talk to each other.
Hughen said another great way parents can help their kids is to set time limits on their technology—including utilizing software that allows a parent to turn off the child’s access to the internet after a certain time. And possibly even more importantly, he said, is to get them into activities that get them out of the house and socializing.
Mian said parents should not be afraid to monitor what their kids are doing online and said that talking openly about things like online challenges and the pressures to participate is very important.
“Keep in mind that many of these challenges are simply funny and not dangerous, so parents can talk with their kids about how to tell the difference,” Mian said.
“One thing to note is whether a child is being pressured by others to participate or if they are initiating it. If a parent is concerned about their own child’s participation, they can ask questions like ‘what will others think about you if they see this?’ or ‘what would happen if you didn’t do this?’ to learn about their child’s motivation and get them to think about their own motivation and the consequences of participating.”
Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.