B.C. expert weighs in on why kids are eating Tide pods for fun

Why are kids taking part in something completely pointless yet so risky?

It’s not the first strange trend to go viral – and certainly won’t be the last – but an online challenge provoking teens to eat packets of clothing detergent on camera is turning heads.

Known as the “Tide pod challenge,” teens of all ages are filming themselves eating the blue and orange infused packages.

While some end laughing and spitting it out, the challenge has turned serious with dozens of people being poisoned by the detergent. According to the U.S. poison control centre, when ingested the liquid inside the pods can cause diarrhea, coughing spells and vomiting. Children who aspirate it into their lungs can suffer from long-term breathing difficulties.

Despite there being no known cases of the challenge going wrong in B.C., many youth and teens are aware of the videos.

So why are kids taking part in something completely pointless yet so risky?

According to Eric Meyers, an expert on youth online behaviour, the answer is no different than for kids of generation’s past: an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that moderates social behaviour and decision making.

READ MORE: Dare to be smarter and just say no

Mix that with how quickly gratification can be gained on the internet – in the form of likes, shares and views – and it’s the perfect equation for a challenge that makes little sense but carries serious shock value to spread quickly.

“Part of it is fueled with the notion of internet fame and the idea you can generate enough clicks, generate enough views and that will make you internet famous even for a few moments,” said Meyers, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

Like other challenges – including the benign mannequin challenge, or positive ice bucket challenge which raised funds for ALS research – this one involves young people feeling the need to videotape their behaviours as a way of documenting their experience, Meyers said.

“In our contemporary society, there’s this thirst for notoriety,” Meyers said, “and in particular online fandom and infinity that is driving some of these behaviours. It’s not like kids don’t know this is wrong for them.”

In response to the challenge causing such a stir, Tide’s parent company Procter and Gamble released a statement, saying: “Our laundry pacs are a highly concentrated detergent meant to clean clothes and they’re used safely in millions of households every day. They should be only used to clean clothes and kept up, closed and away from children. They should not be played with, whatever the circumstance is, even if meant as a joke.”

Tide also released an online campaign, featuring New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, discouraging the practice.

“Raising awareness is kind of a double-edged sword,” Meyers said. “It draws more people to the controversy as participants as much as it dissuades people from engaging in it.”

Video sharing service YouTube is removing videos involving people eating the detergent.

“YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm,” the company said in a statement.

Social media amplifies natural tendency towards risk: Meyers

The Tide pod challenge will soon fade, becoming last week’s game, before it’s replaced by whatever challenges comes next as youth look to wow their peers with something new.

And no matter what it is, it’ll be online for all to see.

“It’s not that social media is compelling young people to do this,” Meyers said. “Social media is simply a tool by which they can do this and gain gratification by other people. So it amplifies some of the effects of young people’s natural tendency towards risk but it’s not the actual cause of risky behaviour.”

While risk is a natural part of adolescence, Meyer said parents and school officials can play a role in talking with teens about balancing risk with acceptance – but the effectiveness of the message is in the delivery.

Instead of telling them “no,” which can often “be like the forbidden fruit” scenario, Meyers said, talking with the kid about why they’re feeling they need to take part can lead to a deeper discussion about decision making and online behaviours.

“It’s sad to see that this sort of behaviour takes place, but it’s something that we need to talk about and to open up dialogues with young people – teenagers in particular – so we can understand their motivations but also have them reflect and unpack what the possible outcomes could be for them,” Meyers said.

“In some cases they’re just not thinking in the long term about the consequences.”

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