Health Blog

Social Media Adds to Challenges of Teen Risky Behavior

The “Tide Pod Challenge” is the latest risky behavior landing teens in emergency rooms across the country. Teens who bite into laundry pods and post the videos online as part of a “challenge” can end up with permanent damage to their esophagus, warns Sandhya Katz, MD, Attending Physician in the Department of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Nyack Hospital.

The ingredients in laundry pods might also cause seizures, fluid in the lungs, respiratory arrest, coma or death, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. This is just the latest in a series of video challenges popular among teens. Before laundry pods, the “Cinnamon Challenge” sent many teens to emergency rooms with burning in the airways and in some cases nosebleeds, vomiting, and difficulty breathing.

Dr. Katz also sees teens in Nyack’s emergency room who have been “robotripping”—drinking large amounts of Robitussin or other brands of cough syrup to get high. While cough syrup is safe when taken as recommended, high doses can cause hallucinogenic trips and has the potential to be very dangerous, or even fatal when taken alongside other medicines or illicit drugs.

“Teens have always been up for dares, but now with social media, the risk-taking is magnified,” Dr. Katz says. Most of the teens she sees in the emergency room who have abused household products or over-the-counter medicines are ages 13 to 15. “That’s when they begin to experiment,” she says. “What is especially concerning is that some teens who start off with these household products may move on in later years to illicit drugs such as heroin.”

Dr. Katz tells parents a good way to catch risky behavior early is to monitor their teens’ social media until they are 16 or 17—at least twice a week, but preferably daily. “It’s also important to know who your teens friends are. Know who they’re hanging out with in your basement, in school, and after school,” she says.

Young teens who are most vulnerable to taking up challenges or experimenting with risky behavior are those who are shy and have low-self esteem, according to Dr. Katz. “If your teen has a sudden change in behavior—if, for instance, they were outgoing and have suddenly become more withdrawn—ask them what’s going on. Parents should always be on the lookout for secretive behavior—when a teen starts closing their door or spends a lot of time in the garage.” Don’t confront them, Dr. Katz advises. Ask open-ended questions and do a lot of listening.

Boosting a teen’s self-esteem can go a long way in helping to prevent risky behavior, she says. “So many times, a teen will get into something risky because they feel bad about themselves,” she notes. “Take the time to validate them. Let them know you care, offer empathy and compassion, and give them plenty of praise. If they feel better about themselves, they may be less likely to do risky and destructive things to try to get other people to like them.”