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There is no such thing as the Benadryl TikTok challenge
For the love of god please stop falling for fake viral news stories
I did a Twitter thread on this a while ago, but since my tweets auto delete I wanted to set the record straight here for posterity. There is no evidence of the “Benadryl challenge" ever existing on TikTok. There has been no trending audio ever associated with a "“Benadryl challenge" on TikTok, no "Benadryl challenge" or related hashtag has trended on the app, and no influencers on the app appear to have ever posted about the challenge.
TikTok, in its trending challenges section which it removed over a year ago, never featured the “Benadryl challenge" or anything similar. For a challenge to be a challenge, a critical mass of influencers must promote it or it must be amplified by a massive number of users to trend. There's no evidence of this ever happening on TikTok.
The mother of a girl who died from the alleged Benadryl challenge says her daughter "wanted to get high and see how it felt because of these videos." But what videos? Prior to the local news cycle blaming TikTok, the top result for this type of content online was a YouTube video by a huge influencer Tana Mongeau.
In Mongeau's video, "I OVERDOSED ON BENADRYL & TRIPPED LIKE ACID: STORYTIME", she describes getting high off Benadryl to her 5.39 million followers. The video has over 7,500 comments and many of the comments are discussing how her followers did this themselves, with one person saying he took 37 Benadryl pills.
Like the alleged choking challenge, taking Benadryl to get high is not some TikTok thing, it's something teenagers have been doing for decades and was discussed across many social media platforms for years before TikTok even launched. There are countless news stories about it that predate TikTok.
A 2014 ABC news segment and story describes young people having "Benadryl parties in lots of places in the United States."
Back In 2008, local news reports interviewed a slew of teenagers talking about abusing the medicine to get high.
Taking Benadryl to get high has been such a pervasive issue for so long that even back in 2002 Good Morning America ran an entire major national news segment and digital story on the issue and how common it was among teens.
While we’re at it, the NyQuil chicken thing was also never a TikTok challenge, among many others that members of congress touted as examples of the platform’s harms. Read my full piece for The Washington Post debunking the misinfo spouted in the hearing.
Before TikTok, I spent years debunking fake alleged viral YouTube trends. Back in those days, dubious journalists were claiming YouTube was forcing children to eat Tide Pods and snort condoms. These rumors are pervasive about new forms of technology, as I wrote in this 2019 feature for The Atlantic, where I debunked a fake WhatsApp trend that was allegedly causing teens to kill themselves. As I wrote:
For parents today, it can seem that the internet has endless ways of trying to kill your children or persuading your children to kill themselves. The so-called Blue Whale challenge supposedly asked kids to complete a series of tasks that culminated in suicide. The trend later turned out to be a hoax. Local news warned about recent “crazes” like teens eating toxic Tide Pods (they weren’t), or potentially choking to death while snorting condoms for YouTube views (no deaths have been reported). Even the cinnamon challenge could supposedly kill you.
All of these challenges and trends follow the same formula: A local news station runs a piece overstating a dangerous teen trend. Concerned parents flock to social media to spread the word. Actual teenagers and anyone else who lives their life Extremely Online mock them for their naïveté. Brands and influencers hop on the trend, parodying it and exploiting it for their own gain. And trolls take advantage of those who believe it’s real, often by creating and posting content that seemingly confirms parents’ worst fears. SNL brilliantly parodied this cycle in 2010. Since then, it has only gotten worse.
These trends are “part of a moral panic, fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to,” Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry, told Rolling Stone. And spreading them can actually end up causing harm. “These stories being highly publicized, and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk,” the U.K.-based suicide-awareness charity Samaritans told The Guardian. Some kids can also end up hurting themselves by participating in the trend ironically.
Parents have always felt out of touch with younger generations, but smartphones have seemingly widened that gulf. Sixty percent of teens have created accounts for apps or social-media sites without their parents’ knowledge, according to a 2016 study by the National Cyber Security Alliance. And only 13 percent of teenagers believed their parents “understood the extent of their internet use.” That gap in understanding has allowed this very specific type of misinformation to flourish.
Worried parents share these hoax stories relentlessly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They beg the platforms themselves to do something to fix the mess. Many parents believe that spreading awareness about the latest dangerous craze will help kids stay safe, but they could very well be doing the opposite.
The problem is, these stories are only ever a distraction. They offer false reassurance and an easy fix to the wrong problem. If you can protect your child from the Momo challenge, the thinking goes, you can protect them from bad things on the internet. Unfortunately, maintaining kids’ safety online is a much more complicated and delicate task. “This whole ‘Momo is making kids commit suicide’ is a digital version of playing Beatles records backwards to hear Satanic messages,” says Ben Collins, a journalist who covers misinformation. “It does a real disservice to all the harmful stuff targeting children and teens on YouTube.”
That’s not to say that tech platforms never perpetuate harm. Of course, there are ways to improve the tech products we use. The internet is profoundly changing kids’ lives in ways that we have yet to understand, and it makes sense that parents want to keep their children safe. But fake trends aren’t what they need protection from.