Hello, fellow teens! Sorry to interrupt your latest obsession. According to various news outlets, you're all busy setting up webcams, then holding a flaccid condom to your nostril and inhaling until it jellyfishes out of your nasopharynx and into the back of your throat like a latex loogie from hell. You've just completed the Condom Snorting Challenge, along with untold thousands of other teens risking asphyxiation for likes.
Sorry, is that not what you're doing? Is it far more likely that you and the rest of your frivolous, moral-panic inducing compatriots don't actually exist? Do accept our apologies.
While the Condom Snorting Challenge is many things, it is most certainly not a trend. Unlike January's Tide Pod Challenge, there was no critical mass of teenagers talking about flossing their nostrils with contraceptives—but that didn't stop people from claiming otherwise. In this case, the trailer of internet breadcrumbs ends in San Antonio, Texas. But the true culprits here are threefold: Tide Pods, the internet's inability to not watch disgusting things, and some media outlets' endless hunt for relevance.
If condom-snorting ever qualified as a trend, it was probably in 2013. (Even that had predecessors: videos dating to May 2012; internet lore dating back to 2006; and a university newspaper article describing the act way back in 1993.) Then, it was called the Condom Challenge, before the (realer, bigger) trend of dropping a condom full of water on your head usurped that name. A young woman named Savannah Strong seems to have sparked the blaze almost exactly five years ago, with a (since deleted) YouTube video.
So why is this happening now? One answer is that in late March, a group of parents from the San Antonio area attended a workshop called “Dares, Drugs, and Dangerous Teen Trends,” in which state education specialist Stephen Enriquez told them that—in a hypothetical worst-case scenario—their teens could possibly start huffing rubbers as other teenagers have in the past. And as sometimes happens, this particular local news stories became inflated via the infinite bellows of social media and meta-aggregation.
Some of the resulting coverage managed to be useful and well-intentioned, like Dr. Bruce Y Lee’s piece for Forbes. “Regardless of how popular the challenge may actually be, it is out there for people to see and imitate,” Lee wrote. “People may not understand the relevant anatomy and the implications of disrupting parts of the body. Even though something looks like an opening or a tube doesn’t mean that it is just an opening or a tube.”
However, the medical warning was completely unnecessary. If you dig back into the coverage, you eventually realize that there's no actual trend underneath the stories—it's just trend pieces all the way down. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, the organization Enriquez works for has been using the same curriculum for years. Even the original news report, by San Antonio Fox affiliate KABB, never calls it a trend. Yet, publications from Newsweek to Fox to Yahoo called it one, pretty much just because they could find evidence of multiple teenagers snorting condoms. Nor did it stop with US media: America’s Condom Snorting Challenge panic, we regret to inform you, is actually international news.) It was so perfect a trend the internet practically willed it into being.
Thus is the price of the attention economy: If it looks like a trend, you can use it to feed the ravenous maw of the internet. And as with the Tide Pods debacle, reporters evinced that they've become over-reliant on social media to tell them what to write about. When Complex or a local ABC affiliate picks up a story, that compels the Foxes and Yahoos to tell you to look at the thing everyone else is looking at. Some are still publishing stories describing the Condom Snorting Challenge as a real trend. Many people will never even know it was fake.
These stories keep happening because people keep reading them—and it's no mystery why. As planking and Tebowing showed, "kids these days and their digital dares!" is an established traffic machine for click-based media companies; adding an element of peril only increases the rueful headshaking over Gen-Z shenanigans. Then there's the shudder factor: not only are you watching someone essentially dry-heave, but being reminded that your mouth and nose are connected by a snot channel is very grounding. Besides, the irresistible impulse to watch a video just to know how gross it is? That’s your survival mechanism talking. Knowing what’s disgusting and what isn’t is supposed to keep you safe.
The real reason the Condom Snorting Challenge reached the Icarus-like heights it did, though, is the Tide Pod Challenge. Virtually every single condom-snorting article mentions it—if not starts and ends by invoking the sudsy trend. So if you're freaked out about the state of America's youth and feeling kind of nauseated, we've got bad news: This entire phenomenon might come down to a handful of reporters who just wanted to write about teenagers popping detergent packs again.
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