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Substance Abuse and TikTok: Dangerous Trends that Promote Teen Drug Use

TikTok is perhaps the trendiest social media application right now. The platform currently has close to 700 million users globally, most of which are Gen Z. Gen Z, or those born between 1997 and 2015, is a generation often characterized as authentic and progressive thinkers, as well as our first “digital natives” in history. They do not know a world without smartphones. They are always online, sharing real and honest moments of their lives. They are also typically the first to jump on viral social media trends, particularly those boasted by their favorite vloggers and influencers.

tiktok and drug abuseIf you have a teenager, you likely know about TikTok already. TikTok is a video-sharing, social networking platform that allows users to create and share short videos with friends and followers. Often, these videos showcase a user’s creativity and may include dancing, singing, or comedy. TikTok is also full of viral challenges and trends for users to attempt – such as trying a new dance move or recording your pet doing an obstacle course. While this seems to be all fun and games, there is also an array of dangerous TikTok trends that have surfaced, many of which promote drug culture or pose a risk to teens’ health.

Examples of Dangerous TikTok Trends

It is important for parents to monitor their teens’ social media activity, and to stay aware of dangerous TikTok trends that are circulating the internet. By being cognizant of viral trends and challenges, you can have honest conversations with your teens about any dangers that they pose. Below are examples of viral and dangerous TikTok trends that have promoted harmful behaviors and threats to users’ health:

  1. The Benadryl Challenge

The Benadryl Challenge was a viral trend in which TikTok creators would take a high dosage of this over-the-counter drug, in order to hallucinate, and document their experience on video. In some cases, teens were taking as much as 10 times the recommended dosage of Benadryl in efforts to get high.

Benadryl is a brand name for diphenhydramine, an antihistamine drug that is used to treat allergies. When consumed in large amounts, however, Benadryl has the potential to cause dangerous effects like seizures, psychosis, hallucinations, delirium, and even death. However, the many young people trying this trend may not know about those dangers. Or, they may not care. They are seeing other people complete the “Benadryl Challenge” successfully, and believe they too can get high without ill effects.

The Benadryl Challenge gained such popularity, likely because this is a drug you can find in your home. Families have Benadryl in their medicine cabinets and if they don’t, teens can usually go out and buy it.

  1. The Nutmeg Challenge

Speaking of teens using easy-to-access, household items to get high, another popular trend that swept TikTok was the “Nutmeg Challenge.” Simply put, TikTok users would consume a large amount of the spice nutmeg – which can be found in any kitchen cabinet – and document the hallucinogenic effects. In some of the viral videos, there is a warning at the end that says, “Don’t try this,” or that highlights the negative experience a person had overdosing on nutmeg. However, many TikTok users continued to attempt the challenge anyway, to try something new or prove that they too can do it.

The problem with this challenge, again, is that TikTok users aren’t always thinking about the negative side effects. Additionally, they are not considering the psychological dangers that hallucinations can cause in some individuals. While hallucinating is often glamorized as fun and exciting, it can also take a toll on one’s mental health. Hallucinations can stir up terrible experiences in those who are not in a good or healthy state of mind, and can cause long-term issues such as persistent flash-backs.

  1. The Headphone Challenge

While not a drug-related challenge, the ‘Headphone Challenge’ is one that is unsettling, in that it touches on some serious mental health, body image, and self-esteem issues. Specifically, it promotes eating disorders. The Headphone Challenge is essentially a call for teens to take their wired headphones and wrap the cord around their waist. The goal is to see how many times one can wrap the cord around their mid-section, therefore showcasing how “skinny” they are.

Of course, the effects that this type of video can have on viewers’ mental health and self-esteem are detrimental. Those who try the challenge may find they are not “skinny enough,” which can promote depression, low self-esteem, and disordered eating. Those who are already struggling with eating disorders may feel challenged to wrap the cord around their waist multiple times, in an attempt to prove they can be skinnier. With young women at high risk for eating disorders, and Gen Z already characterized by many mental health issues, this challenge is can be especially damaging to their mental state.

  1. #TripTok

While this is not a challenge, it is a common hashtag used across TikTok – along with similar tags like #snifftok, #ket, and #pinging. What do they all mean? TripTok and SniffTok are a play on the app name, and are hashtags designed to bring together and promote drug culture on TikTok. Pinging is a form of drug abuse, and Ket is short for Ketamine, one of the most popular drugs used among TikTok users. According to one article from The Sun, there have been almost 14 million searches for the hashtag #ket. For the videos using the hashtag #TripTok, there have been over 46 million views.

When a user posts a video about their experience getting high, it is often designed to be entertaining and funny. For example, they will share the ridiculous things they said or did while tripping on Ketamine. Sometimes, drug-related content is meant to be educational—there have been TikToks created about how to make your own MDMA, or how to test your drugs for fentanyl. Ultimately, the goal is to go viral – to get millions of views on your video. However, these viral videos do not underline the dangers of substance abuse. They do not discourage teens from trying drugs. Rather, they promote drug culture.

One user, just 18-years-old, told Vice that he publishes content about drugs to be entertaining. “My incentive has always been to entertain. If I make someone laugh then I’ve done my job… [Drug abuse is] a relatable subject, and the large majority of my friends do drugs. Especially in the past few months during lockdown, since there hasn’t been much to do, people will just sesh out of boredom. There’s a sense of community when you share funny stories about tripping.”

As more teens and young adults see TripTok pop up on their TikTok feeds, the risks of them using drugs increases. It becomes a more normal part of their day-to-day life to see this type of content. And with Gen Z being known as the “isolated” generation, they are more likely to try new things to fill their time.

Why TikTok Is Problematic

As mentioned above, the primary demographic using TikTok today is children, teenagers, and young adults. The problem is, this age group is also highly impressionable. Their brains are still in development, meaning the content they absorb now can be highly influential on their behaviors and ways of thinking.

Additionally, because their brains are still maturing, teenagers and young adults do not always have the ability to think about long-term consequences, or fully rationalize their decisions. If they are watching videos about getting high on household items, they may not consider the dangerous side effects that those items can cause. They may not think about the long-term effects of Benadryl abuse. Teens and young adults often live in the moment, because the part of the brain dedicated to sound decision-making is not fully developed.

While TikTok’s guidelines prohibit content related to drug abuse, it still exists all over the platform. It is not easy to monitor, especially as users come up with creative hashtags to disguise their substance use. So, parents must be aware that this content exists, that it spreads like wildfire, and that it is highly accessible to teens and young adults.

TikTok makes content accessible and digestible. If a user wants to see a video about a certain topic, they can find it using a simple hashtag. Or, they can find new content through their TikTok feed. A user’s video feed is based on their interests and the types of content they enjoy watching. If they enjoy trends like the Benadryl challenge, or interact with a certain influencer on TikTok, the algorithm will work to serve them very similar content. This becomes an issue when the content poses dangers to one’s health. The more a teen sees a dangerous trend, the more it becomes “normal.” Making drugs out of household items appears “normal.” Ketamine abuse becomes “normal.” And at the same time it becomes normalized, it becomes something teens might want to try themselves.

What Can Parents Do?

Research shows that Gen Z typically has strong relationships with their family. They embrace family time and value guidance and direction from their parent(s). So, as a parent of a teen or young adult, know that you already have a great influence on what your teen does in their daily life. Other core values of the Gen Z population are truth and honesty.

You can help your child stay away from dangerous drug trends, simply by having an open and honest conversation at home. Explain your concerns to your son or daughter, and educate them on the dangers of some of these viral trends. If your child is in recovery from substance abuse, explain your concerns about having an app like TikTok that promotes drug-related content.

Additionally, one of the key steps parents can take in preventing teen drug use is to simply keep tabs on their teen. Know who their friends are, what they do after school, and even who they follow on social media. If your teen pushes back on you for asking too many questions, let them know you are simply trying to keep them safe. High levels of parental monitoring are associated with significantly reduced odds of a teen having friends who use drugs as well as a teen having intentions to use drugs. Low parental monitoring – such as allowing unsupervised hang-out sessions between teens, or not monitoring a teen’s social media account activity – is associated with an increased risk of teen drug use.

To learn more about teen substance abuse, or to learn how to get your teen help for a drug or mental health disorder, please contact us. Turnbridge specializes in treatment for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders among teens and young adults. We are here for you.