Written by Joe Krzyston
According to the Washington Post, the first two weeks of 2018 saw thirty-seven teenagers call poison control because they intentionally consumed a Tide laundry pod. They join roughly fifty who did the same in 2017. The popular response has essentially been a cookie-cutter replication of responses to any number of troubling ‘teen trends’ from years past. The department of Health and Human Services says there are almost forty-two million teenagers in the U.S. today, but if more than three of them do something baffling, there is a tendency for a certain demographic to panic, standing slack-jawed before what they see as the collapse of western civilization. This demographic, the men and women of a certain age whose houses are usually inadequately lit and cluttered, who voted overwhelmingly for a neurotic combover, is the demographic that has the least daily contact with teenagers, or with anybody else at all, and it doesn’t take much to make them worry for the youth.
These are the people to whom most of the media on the subject is directed. Proctor and Gamble released a Very Serious statement, reminding consumers that Tide pods “…should not be played with, whatever the circumstance, even if meant as a joke.” The end of the Washington Post’s article on the subject has information on contacting poison control. Hordes of retirees are posting grammatically creative Facebook statuses about it. They all misunderstand the nature of the tragedy.
Oddly, College Humor gets a little closer in their video on the trend, wherein a college student researches the dangers of the pods and devours them anyway. The joke is that bright, highly motivated young people don’t take time to research the obvious and disregard it to their detriment. The slightly dark backside is that the people who eat the things are not in on this joke. Indeed, the Tide Pod Challenge can be understood as a conceptual conclusion to and extreme extrapolation of the trend begun by the benign online challenges. The tragedy isn’t that people are eating laundry soap. It’s that the people doing so are the ones who don’t get the irony, who have trouble understanding the practical difference between a spoonful of cinnamon and a pouch of bleach.
Indeed, this ‘Dangerous Teen Trend’ is different than most, because it isn’t a legitimate attempt at inebriation or image improvement. Almost nobody seriously expects a Tide pod to get them high, nor do most expect ingestion of one to win them the adulation of their peers. Out of forty-two million teenagers, it is likely those on the far margins who may be counted as exceptions to this statement, who might be naïve, desperate, or detached enough from reality to eat the soap for imagined gain. Put plainly, the issue is not that a lot of millennials are eating Tide pods, but that nobody is stopping the slow kids from doing so.
It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to count this as a symptom of our growing isolation from one another. Millions of people shuffle from home to work to home again in contact with almost nobody. Maybe they come home to a spouse, met in the brief window of vulnerability once considered necessary for matrimonial cohabitation, or maybe they don’t. Barring church, which is less popular now than ever, or work, a place that on the whole is growing hopelessly sanitized, what reason have people to leave their homes and check in with their neighbors? What community is there to validate and inform the less capable among us? Why do anything but sit in communion with a screen that does exactly what you’d like it to and cannot hurt you?
A few afternoons ago, I read the first part of a story in the paper about a man in his late-twenties who shot his mother, fatally, because she distracted him from his video game. I considered for a moment the isolation from and distortion of reality that might lead a person to do a thing like that. Then I considered how many of my classmates were in their rooms then, in the middle of the day, watching Netflix or playing video games, and remembered the forty percent of Roanoke College’s bandwith is used to stream media. It occurred to me then that I had been dismayed, but not surprised, to read that a man had killed his mother over a video game, or to hear that teenagers were eating laundry soap, and that it all makes perfect sense if we observe the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be.