Washington: A small group of San Antonio-area parents and teachers were alarmed by what they saw during a presentation at a local school in late March. It was the “condom challenge,” a dangerous YouTube trend where teens snorted condoms up their nose — and pulled them out of their mouths.
For the parents in the room at that San Antonio school, it was a disturbing wake-up call, a glimpse at the worst case scenario for what their teens might be up to online. And that’s what it’s meant to be. The moment is part of “Dares, Drugs, and Dangerous Teen Trends,” an adults-only workshop offered by the regional office for Texas’s Education Service Center.
Educators there have given the same presentation to local schools for years. But something was different about this particular presentation: a local news crew was sitting in for a story. And soon, it wouldn’t be just those San Antonio parents who were alarmed. Terrifying headlines since that presentation have said the challenge was “every parent’s worst nightmare,” and “the latest dangerous social media trend” and “trending” among teens. The “condom challenge” was the next “Tide Pod challenge,” the memes went. Man, kids these days are sure dumb.
There’s just one small problem, however: Those headlines were wrong. The only thing viral about the condom challenge right now is the moral panic about the idea of teens doing the condom challenge. In a matter of days, word spread from a single local news report to a small army of local and national publications across the world, all warning about a challenge that, in 2018, barely exists.
The “condom challenge” was briefly popular around 2013, when a teen snorting a condom up her nose as a Taylor Swift song played went viral. But as some news reports noted at the time, the challenge itself dates back to at least 2007. US poison control centres have identified just one single case of condom inhalation in the past five years, according to a Washington Post report Monday. YouTube searches for “condom challenge” and “condom snorting challenge” turn up few actual videos of teens trying it. The ones that do surface are often several years old, and the rest of the search results are either videos about how the condom challenge is bad, or videos of YouTubers attempting a separate “condom challenge” from a couple of years ago that doesn’t involve inhaling a contraceptive.
“The word ‘trend’ is the most important aspect of these stories,” said Alex Kasprak, a reporter at Snopes, a fact-checking site that rated the “condom challenge” panic as “mostly false.” Stories like the “condom challenge” panic often begin with a kernel of truth — kids really have done this challenge on YouTube before, and it really is dangerous. But Kasprak is often stunned by “how quickly someone will slap the word ‘trend’ on something.”
The condom challenge’s trending panic stems directly from that San Antonio workshop. A local news story about the workshop heavily featured the “condom challenge” portion of state education specialist Stephen Enriquez’s presentation, and the potential dangers it represented. In an interview with Fox 29 in San Antonio, Enriquez said, “These days our teens are doing everything for likes, views and subscribers. As graphic as it is, we have to show parents because teens are going online looking for challenges and recreating them.”
But a spokesperson for the organisation that employs Enriquez to give these presentations seemed confused by the sudden interest. “We’ve been sharing about this and other ‘challenges’ for years now,” said Mayra T. de Hoyos, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Service Center in Region 20, “and don’t know how it gained such popularity just recently.”
De Hoyos added that their organisation isn’t saying the “condom challenge” — or any other danger covered in the presentation — is actually happening in San Antonio schools. They don’t even collect data on that. “The focus of our presentations is not about this challenge but rather a combination of issues that teens ‘may’ at one point be exposed to,” they said.
Although the Fox 29 story did not say that the “condom challenge” was trending, the story soon became the basis for several hyperbolic articles. A couple examples: a Newsweek aggregation, “THE CONDOM CHALLENGE IS GETTING TEENS TO SNORT OPEN RUBBERS UP THEIR NOSE” helped to amplify the idea that this challenge was the next big thing for dumb teens to do online. Another story, from the Sacramento Bee, cites “educators” as claiming that the “condom challenge” has “recently gone viral again.” The only educator the article actually quotes is Enriquez, who didn’t say this challenge had gone viral recently.
Snorting condoms is dangerous, of course. But it’s only trending right now Kasprak notes, “because ‘kids are so dumb’ is a real popular thing to talk about.” Take the Tide Pod Challenge, which became so popular as a source of outrage in January that it is now a popular anti-teen meme. Although it is true that some teens did bite into Tide Pods to try and go viral, a Washington Post report noted that detergent pod poison cases in the US were actually trending downwards.
Dumb trends about dumb teens, whether true or not, “plays into everything that the internet takes up like crack,” Kasprak said.