Teenagers Are Risking Death to Film Themselves Eating Detergent.” “Teens Risk Their Lives With ‘Tide Pod Challenge.’” “Why the Hell Are Teens Biting Into Tide Pods? In January, outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Harvard Health Blog to local papers released a storm of articles condemning the Tide Pod challenge.

They listed the harmful effects of eating Tide Pods and showed clips of teens biting into them. Reading their headlines, you’d almost expect teens to be foaming at the mouth, dropping like flies, and posting videos of their ambulance rides.

But this, of course, has not happened at all.

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Since January 1, only 191 cases of teenagers intentionally eating liquid laundry packets have been handled by poison control centers. The trend peaked in the middle of January and has tapered off since. No teen has died from it, though some smaller children and seniors with dementia have

There are about 42 million people between the ages of 10 and 19 in the U.S. Multiplying the number of reported cases by 10 for a cushion, the percentage of teens who ingested Tide Pods this year is about 0.005%.

Contrary to what the stream of Tide Pod articles may suggest, most teens would be shocked at the mere idea of eating a Tide Pod. The very, very few who do go that far don’t even “eat” it. They bite into one and immediately spit it out (although that’s still harmful, of course). 

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Unsurprisingly, the media has overly sensationalized the issue. But the problem is worse than having to deal with an annoying number of Tide Pod-related articles.

By overreacting to a minor problem, news outlets have inaccurately portrayed teens as incapable of intelligent actions at a time when their voices need to be heard more than ever. And by giving attention to the few who chose to film themselves eating Tide Pods, they made it more rewarding and tempting for others to do the same, fueling the potential fad.

The coverage of the Tide Pod challenge reveals more about problems with the media than with teens.

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News Outlets Want Clicks and Reads

Most people who slurp Tide Pod juice on camera want to gain internet fame. Before YouTube decided to pull videos of the challenge from the site, one girl’s video racked up over 800,000 views.

Likewise, news outlets flock to over-the-top stories to capture our attention. They know our morbid curiosity will draw us to headlines like “Teenagers Are Risking Death to Film Themselves Eating Detergent.” They know that people prefer to hear the depressing news. Writing about teens purposefully eating Tide Pods does the trick.

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Around the week of January 14, the news as a whole spotlighted an issue that has only reportedly affected 191 teens this year. Not great things teens have done, recent medical breakthroughs, or bigger issues in society.

This is not surprising or new — sensation sells. Craziness gets clicks. Novelty sustains the news. Even this article can’t claim innocence. But shouldn’t the news try a little harder to focus on more significant issues?

To be fair, the ingestion of laundry detergent is not totally rare. In 2017, there were 12,299 poison control center calls about exposure to laundry pods. Most of the cases (10,570), however, affected children aged five and under. This issue has even pushed New York legislators to propose a bill to make Tide Pods less attractive to kids. 

Yet virtually every article listing the dangers of eating Tide Pods were aimed at keeping teens away from them. It seems like it would be more impactful to warn parents about young children being drawn to candy-like laundry pods. But that’s only barely mentioned in most news coverage.

The Media Encouraged the Tide Pod Challenge

CBS News, the Chicago Tribune, and ABC Action News reported on the trend and its dangers while showing clips of teens partaking in it. Those teens likely posted their videos for views, and they were rewarded with just that.

Psychologists warn against glamorizing people who do harmful things others should not copy. Jennifer B. Johnston, Ph.D., and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University found that an increase in media coverage of mass shootings actually increases mass shootings.

This effect is called media contagion, and it’s been brought up in suicide reporting, too. The media stopped covering celebrity suicides in the ’90s after they learned that suicide was contagious. By 1997, suicide rates dropped.  

The media could have taken note of this in regards to Tide Pod ingestion. Their reports say it can cause permanent harm, even death. At the same time, many of them also included clips of people doing it. Media outlets may have done the opposite of what they intended. They gave more views to the few who tried the challenge, making it more tempting for others to do so.

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Whether media contagion played a role in this trend or not, there is no doubt that fewer people would have tried the challenge had fewer people known about it.

It seems that media attention to eating Tide Pods helped fuel social media attention, and vice versa. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Because the media lambasted Tide Pod-eating so blatantly, the “forbidden fruit” became even more forbidden. This increased the hilarity in joking about eating one and the potential for fame.

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Reporters Don’t Understand Their Subjects

The concept of Tide Pods looking delicious enough to eat began as a joke in a 2015 Onion article. Other jokes, like CollegeHumor’s video “Don’t Eat the Laundry Pods,” trickled in throughout 2017. In January, a few people tried it for real, but it’s evident that many more young people just made or shared jokes about it.

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The joke lies in the temptation of eating something that’s clearly poison. It would not be a joke if teens did not already believe that eating Tide Pods is dangerous. The media, however, seems to believe that teens don’t know that, causing the public to think so, too.

The media also honed in on the Tide Pod challenge, which should be distinguished from the jokes. The memes did not outright tell teens to eat Tide Pods. The far less circulated “Tide Pod challenge” did.

Reporters ignored the more common and harmless trend in internet humor. They construed a false reality where most teens mindlessly go home and bite into Tide Pods for attention. In actuality, more teens went home to joke about biting into Tide Pods for attention.

Other journalists caught on to the flawed view and mirrored this attitude of looking down at teens in their own articles. Reporters missed that the increase in memes and online jokes about Tide Pods was the actual, more prevalent trend among teens.

The Coverage Inaccurately Represented Teens

While reading through news reports about the challenge, I noticed that many of them used a quote from 19-year-old Marc Pagan to CBS News. He tried the challenge as a dare. He said, “A lot of people were just saying how stupid I was or how – why would I be willing to do that. No one should be putting anything like that in their mouths, you know?” 

The Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the New York Post, and Telegraph only referred to that quote but not any others from different teens. Pagan — one of a vast minority who bit the bullet — was the only one able to share his opinion.

Reporters did not interact enough with the demographic they were portraying. As a result, they thought the challenge was far more popular than it was and falsely generalized the teen population.

In a CBS clip, correspondent Anna Werner holds up a Tide Pod and says, “Teens are pumping them into their mouths.” Like many others did, she uses the subject “teens,” suggesting that the statement applies to most of them. She also claims they are “pumping” the liquid, a rhetorical flourish that is obviously untrue.

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The media extrapolated the actions of a few not-so-bright teens and used a quote from one perpetrator. They overwhelmingly and falsely misrepresented youth as irrational and impulsive.

Before rushing to release articles explaining “why teens are eating Tide Pods” to keep pace with other news outlets, journalists should have talked to more regular, straight-thinking teenagers. Their voices could have helped them more accurately convey the “trend.”

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People Have Devalued Teens As a Result

“Tide Pod eater” has become a (hopefully short-lived) epithet that people use to devalue the voices and beliefs of teenagers.

After the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many brave survivors began a campaign for gun control that has swept the country. 

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David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alex Wind, Jaclyn Corin, and Emma Gonzalez are just some of the students demanding change

They are teens, but that absolutely does not mean they can’t form intelligent arguments espousing their cause. They’re certainly not poster children for the reckless behavior the term “Tide Pod eater” would suggest. But that has not stopped opponents of their cause from resorting to name-calling.

With the media overreaction, what started as a joke between young people online became a flawed defining trait of an entire population. Even if we the readers inherently understand that not every teen would stoop so low as to eat a Tide Pod, we can’t help but feel that it’s a bigger issue than it actually is.

People are already using the negative representation of teens against them. This could have far-reaching consequences as more and more teens use their voices and stand up for their beliefs.

The next time reporters want to condemn teenagers for trying to attract views, they should ask themselves if they’re doing the same thing and if their actions could have harmful effects as well.

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