What's more dangerous: Tide Pods or the way we talk about teenagers?

In a January 16 press release, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reported that in 2018, there have been thirty-nine reported cases of teenagers who intentionally exposed themselves to single-use laundry packets. In 91% of the cases, teens had intentionally ingested the pods. 

I have argued elsewhere that the danger posed by laundry pods is real, but often exaggerated. I maintain that parents are unnecessarily concerned about the dangers posed by pods. What we should all be far more concerned about is the way that news coverage of the Tide Pod Challenge depicts teenagers. 

Lindsey Bever's coverage in the Washington Post summed up her position in a headline: "Teens are daring each other to eat Tide pods. We don't need to tell you that's a bad idea." The presumption is well, we don't have to tell adults that eating laundry detergent is a bad idea, but the youths need a reminder. Commenters on the piece took the Tide Pod Challenge as evidence for their low opinion of teenagers and their parents. Any dead teens would be Darwinism at work or at least evidence of bad parenting. 

The theme of the stupid teenager runs through most coverage of the Tide Pod Challenge. Thea Glassman at Scary Mommy warned parents "The 'Tide Pod Challenge' Exists," and urged them to "Please Make Sure Your Teens Aren't This Stupid." Many other parenting-related websites have followed suit with headlines designed to terrify parents and/or malign teenagers. At Parents.com, the headline was "Teens Are Risking Their Lives by Taking the 'Tide Pod Challenge.'" At Woman's Day, it was "Teens Are Eating Tide Pods in the Latest Dangerous Social Media Challenge." 

Other outlets issued some version of "teens are why we can't have nice things." Mashable, for example, reported that stores are locking up their laundry detergent pods in order to prevent teens from participating in the challenge (presumably because the same teens making the videos needed to steal pods in order to do them). Gizmodo reminded readers that laundry detergent, identified as a frequently-stolen item long before teens started biting into pods, has been locked up for years in many stores, but that story doesn't seem to have been shared with as much gusto as all the tweets of locked-up laundry pods. 

Others have used the story to enter the political fray. Says @BobtheSuit, "I wonder if parents in Shithole countries have to tell their idiot kids not to eat Tide laundry pods." 

For its part, Proctor and Gamble has attempted to staunch this pod-mageddon with a celebrity PSA from Rob Gronkowski, who poses by a washer-dryer while saying "Use Tide Pods for washing, not eating."

The video is extremely patronizing. I would not be surprised if next week there's a new crop of challenge videos featuring teens defiantly parroting Gronk's "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO" before popping the pods into their mouths.

In short, coverage of the Tide Pod Challenge paints teens as stupid, reckless thieves who are ruining convenient laundry packaging for everyone. 

The pods hardly tempt me, but I'm not convinced that those teens who did take a bite are as stupid or reckless as this news coverage imagines. 

First, although their behavior is certainly risky, it's not clear whether the challengers are actually risking their lives. There have been no reported teen fatalities from laundry pod ingestion. That's likely because teens are not swallowing the pods, but rather biting into them and spitting out the contents. I'm not arguing that this is wise behavior, but the fatality risk of Tide Pod injury appears to come from aspiration, which these teens are not appearing to do. It's likely that these teens face painful chemical burns from the detergent, and that's certainly not pleasant, but without additional evidence, we cannot assume that these teens' lives are in danger. Their faces? Almost certainly yes. Maybe Gronk should talk to them about chemical burns.

Second, there are not nearly enough challengers to justify the news coverage. The 39 teen injuries reported to the AAPCC since the start of 2018 do represent an increase over 2017, but they hardly constitute the epidemic we're seeing reported across news outlets. In fact, those 39 teenagers weren't even reported at the start of this panic. The AAPCC report came out nearly a week after the first major media news coverage of the Tide Pod Challenge, meaning that there was no proof about these poisonings until after the poisonings became a national news story. 

There are roughly 32 million American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19. If the AAPCC figure is accurate, that means there's about a 1-in-800,000 chance that a teen is going to have a laundry pod ingestion injury so severe that someone has to call Poison Control. 

Of course, there are many reasons that this figure may be underreported. Some Poison Control centers may not have submitted data to the national organization. Some people may have called 911 instead of Poison Control. The number of calls to Poison Control doesn't mean only 39 teens bit into a pod--there could be many more cases of teens who bit pods and weren't injured or ill enough to warrant emergency medical attention. But no matter how we look at the numbers, this is not an epidemic requiring intervention on such a large scale.

Basically, we're enlisting all of our cable news channels, national print media outlets, parenting blogs, and even one NFL player to warn...dozens of teenagers about the dangers of ingesting laundry pods. And we're using that incredibly small group of teenagers to make assertions about teenagers as a whole. 

Finally, none of the news coverage has actually demonstrated that any of these teenagers were being either reckless or stupid. Although many Tide Pod Challenge videos appear to have been removed, from the screen grabs taken before their removal, it appears the videos were getting a lot of attention. That's hardly surprising, given the popularity of other types of challenge videos, which are a close second to the unboxing videos every three year old is obsessed with. 

What if we viewed these teens as media-savvy broadcasters who are making a calculated risk in order to get clicks? People who make challenge videos aren't idiots. They're YouTube stars with millions of views. And they're not all teens, either. 45-year-old GloZell's Cinnamon Challenge video has over 53 million views.

We would certainly argue that all of the news reports on the Tide Pod Challenge, the tutorial for DIY candy pods made with gelatin, and the scores of videos from people pretending to eat the pods and then encouraging people not to do it are all savvy responses to this news story. All of those people are getting paid through all those clicks and shares. Why can't we view the teens who made the original videos in the same way?  

What galls me most about this collective Tide Pod Challenge panic is that no actual challengers are in it. Has anyone thought to ask the teens why they ate the pods?

Let's address that oversight now. 

Hello, American teens (who I'm sure are just lying in wait for updates to parenting blogs). Have you bit into a laundry pod? Were you aware of the risks of laundry pod exposure? If so, what factors influenced you to bite into the pod in spite of the potential risks? Were you dared to do it? Did you see potential financial gain in doing it? Would you do it again? Answering these questions may help parents the world over stop panicking about needless dangers.