A middle school in Portsmouth, R.I. recently sent parents an alarming e-mail about kids who are “snorting” or “smoking” Smarties, a silly fad in which kids grind up the tart candy into a fine powder, then blow out the vapor as if they were smoking. (Full disclosure: I used to do something similar when my breath would freeze on frosty mornings.)
Yet everyone is worried. Portsmouth School Committee Chair Dave Croston asserts that the fad “would not be normal behavior” (God forbid!), and raises the “troubling issue of modeling.” That is, kids who pretend to smoke today will become smokers later. The warning sent to parents also cautions that the act may be a “precursor to future cigarette smoking and drug use.” I don’t know of any empirical data to support that contention. I can say that, within my limited sample size of me, I did not grow up to become a smoker.
Smarties-smoking has come up before. The CBS Early Show was all over it in 2009. Also in 2009, a Wall Street Journal article on the alleged trend quoted a Mayo Clinic physician who warned that the act could lead to something called nose maggots. That was also mentioned in the warning to Portsmouth parents. Local blogger John McDaid interviewed that doctor, who conceded that he’d never actually seen a case of “nose maggots” from Smarties, only that it was a possibility. Nevertheless, the fallout from these panics has already led to suspensions of students across the country for improper ingestion of a confectionery.
The Smarties story is just one of a series of mini-panics about kids and substance abuse that seem to get recycled every few years. I long have had an idea to try to create one of these panics from scratch. My idea was “frisking,” in which teenagers would get high by smoking catnip. I thought I’d try to get some teenagers I know to write about it on their Facebook pages, then see how many media outlets fell for it. I never did it, in part because it seemed ethically dubious even it did make a point about media gullibility. But it also occurred to me that just suggesting and popularizing the idea could spur some idiot to actually try it. Come to think of it, it seems like there’s a high probability that the coverage of some of these trends have spurred more kids to try them than would have in the first place.
Below, a list of my favorites. But before we get to the list, I’d like to single out for special recognition this 2012 ABC News story, which in a list of five of scary ways your kids are getting drunk, managed to include three “trends” in the list below, all of which have largely been debunked. (I’m just guessing, but I’d wager that the hand sanitizer and alcohol-soaked gummy bear epidemics are considerably less scary than advertised, too.)
The scare: Teenagers are getting drunk by soaking tampons in alcohol, then inserting them into their vaginas. (Some reports suggested that male teens might be inserting them anally.) News outlets across the country ate this one up, even though there was no evidence anyone was actually doing it. A couple of enterprising bloggers even attempted to replicate the act, and ran into . . . well we’ll just call them “physics problems.”
The scare: Teenagers are getting high by huffing human feces. Again, this one enjoyed a rich saturation of local news coverage despite the fact that no one could find anyone who had actually tried it.
The scare: Kids are downloading audio files that stimulate parts of the brain in a manner that mimics getting high. It’s true that there’s some evidence that binaural beats can have a mildly relaxing or energizing effect. And yes, you can find downloadable files with names like “cocaine” and “marijuana” that claim to mimic those drugs, but the idea that you can get high from or addicted to sound waves is preposterous. That hasn’t stopped a number of media outlets from falling for the scare, over and over again.
(Remember folks, the first download is always free!)
The scare: Teenagers are ingesting vodka through their eyes. This one was picked up by outlets everywhere, including Time and USA Today. Only Reuters’s Jack Shafer and Gawker cut through the hype and cast a critical . . . er . . . eye on the bogus trend. The stories appeared to originate from an article in the British Daily Mail newspaper, which stated that the trend started in the United States. USA Today later reported that the trend started in Britain.
The scare: Teens are funneling beer or wine directly into their rectums. (This one is often conflated with the vodka-soaked tampon story.) The fear seems to have originated from a single article in which a University of Tennessee fraternity member allegedly required emergency medical treatment after consuming a copious amount of wine through his anus. (The man in question has vigorously denied the allegations.) Oh, and some YouTube videos of idiots trying to do the same thing. That’s it.
The most obvious problem with the idea that butt-chugging is sweeping the nation is that when you think about it, ingesting beer through your rectum isn’t something you can easily accomplish alone. It’s also apparently pretty painful, as a noble Vice writer demonstrated. As a former teenage boy, I can assert from experience that your average straight male teen isn’t going to be particularly eager to remove his pants, do a headstand and let his friends insert a tube into his anus. Still, it’s a trend story that refuses to die. When legislators later took up a bill that would allow grocery stores in Tennessee to sell wine (they’re currently permitted only to sell beer), a county sheriff warned that such relaxation of the alcohol laws could lead to an epidemic of butt-chugging incidents.