Only 86 teens ate Tide Pods, so why did the world erupt in moral panic?

The collective frenzy around the Tide Pod Challenge reveals more about our society than the tens of teens who actually ate laundry detergent.

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In Tommy Craze’s YouTube video “TIDE POD CHALLENGE!! *EATING ACTUAL BLEACH*”, no one, at any point, eats actual bleach.

In this way, Craze isn’t dissimilar to the thousands of teens currently taking part in the social media trend known as the Tide Pod Challenge. Beginning at the start of January, the viral trend has seen young people around the world poisoning themselves by ingesting laundry detergent – at least, if you believe the headlines. In actual fact, many teens are behaving similarly to YouTuber Tommy Craze, with the vast majority only pretending to eat the pods.

The Tide Pod Challenge originated as a meme at the end of 2017. Tide Pods were jokingly labelled a “forbidden snack” because their bright colours and squishy feel made them remarkably similar to sweets. As the meme grew in popularity, people began pretending to eat the pods for likes, shares, retweets and views. After a small number of individuals did actually bite into (not eat) the pods on camera, pictures and footage of these people resurfaced again and again in news stories decrying the craze.

The Tide Pod Challenge, obviously, can be dangerous. Even placing a pod in your mouth without biting into it is stupid, as ingesting laundry detergent can be life-threatening. Yet proportionally, the media reaction to the craze does not tally with the number of people actually affected. “It’s Time to Ban Tide Pods for Good,” announced Fortune.com, while NME’s headline questioned whether the challenge was “proof that humanity is doomed”. Some schools have warned parents about the trend, while YouTube started removing Tide Pod Challenge videos on 18 January.

It’s true that since the Tide Pod Challenge began, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPC) has received 86 reports of teenagers intentionally ingesting laundry detergent. Yet at the end of last year, the AAPC reported that over 10,500 children under the age of five were exposed to laundry pods in 2017 (for example ingesting, inhaling, or absorbing the detergent). If we are going to have a mass panic about poisonings, ten thousand children are clearly in greater danger than less than a hundred teens. So why was it that only the Tide Pod Challenge that made pearl-clutching headlines across the globe?

“Moral panics involving the internet receive further attention and notoriety due to the very nature of the internet itself, in that it contributes to the viral transmission of sensational stories,” explains Dr Lisa Sugiura, a senior lecturer in cybercrime at the University of Portsmouth. Sugiura explains that the origins of such stories are often undiscoverable online, causing things to become further embellished into digital urban myths.

“Children and young people are considered to be the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of the internet and so when dramatic stories emerge combining the two the newsworthy appeal and the resulting anxiety automatically increases,” Sugiura explains. “This is heightened by the ability to seek further ‘information’ about the issue, often from unreliable sources.”

That isn’t to say the Tide Pod Challenge is “fake news”. Teenagers acted dangerously in practising and promoting the trend, and the intentional ingestion of laundry detergent is undeniably on the rise. Yet the challenge has received disproportional month-long media coverage that arguably qualifies as a moral panic. An alleged act of mass hysteria in teens has caused actual mass hysteria in adults.

In 2017, the “Blue Whale Game” went viral. Headlines reported that “over 130” teenagers had killed themselves because of the game, which ostensibly saw young people carrying out increasingly dangerous dares in a secretive social media group. Despite the panic caused by the reports, no single suicide has yet been linked to the game. At present, no teenager has died from the Tide Pod Challenge, although six adults with cognitive impairments have died from eating laundry detergent over the last five years. The bright colours in Tide Pods and similar products have historically confused elderly people with dementia, leading to sickness and death. While consumer advocacy groups argue laundry pods need to be redesigned, Tide recently paid American footballer Rob Gronkowski to star in a viral video entitled “Gronk knows that Tide PODS® are for DOING LAUNDRY. Nothing else.”

Social media means that teenage stupidity is now searchable, so it’s easy for a few incidents around the world to look like an epidemic. The mainstream media’s inclination to trash younger generations, as well as its fear of new technology, means this stupidity gets greater press coverage than it deserves. Dr Sandra Leaton Gray, a senior lecturer in education at UCL and author of Invisibly Blighted: The Digital Erosion of Childhood argues these moral panics draw attention away from the real online issues affecting children and teens.

“The issue that really ought to be talked about instead is the addictive nature of the internet,” says Leaton Gray, who explains phenomena like the Tide Pod Challenge get more attention because they play on “people’s worst fears” about endangered children.

When online publications start to clickbait these fears, the stories become more sensationalised. For example, one of the first reports about the Tide Pod Challenge, posted by USA Today, was accurately headlined “Teens are putting detergent pods in their mouth and posting videos online”. The next day¸ The Independent ran their take: “TEENAGERS ARE RISKING DEATH TO FILM THEMSELVES EATING DETERGENT”. When Unilad picked up on the story, it became: “Hundreds Of Teenagers Poisoned By Tide Pod Challenge”.

Leaton Gray says it’s therefore important for everyone to think more critically about information we find online. But when it comes to how the internet damages children, she wishes the media would talk about the dangers of internet addiction.

“I was in a lovely children’s library recently with a group of 8 year olds, and most of them ran off to find books to read. One of them looked round, turned to his mother, and said, ‘Can I have your phone so I can play a game?’,” Leaton Gray says. “He didn’t know where to start in terms of generating his own fun.

“This is the danger of the internet,” she says. “Too much reliance on it can deprive children – and adults – of the rich internal life that is their right.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh