Buzzed: What It Means When Drinking Hand Sanitizer Goes Viral

Social media has made crazy teen behaviors more visible to adults outside the schoolyard.

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Flickr/Valerie Everett

From reports of Vodka "eyeballing" to drinking hand sanitizer to get a buzz, strange and often dangerous memes in teen substance abuse always seem to be making headlines. But is there really an epidemic of bad ideas spreading across the teenage age-set?

It's hard to say. As Dr. Claire McCarthy, aka "MD Mama," put it in her column for Boston.com, "All of us, if we think about our youth, can think of something colossally stupid we did."

Dr. Niranjan S. Karnik, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, would agree. "Young people have been experimenting with substances probably for longer than we can imagine these things have been going on," he says. What has changed today, however, is the speed at which teens can disseminate their ideas through social media.

Just take a look at the spread of "The Cinnamon Challenge" -- ingest one tablespoon of cinnamon with no water in under 60 seconds -- earlier this spring. Even when no foreseeable benefit is involved--no alcohol or drug "buzz" to be had--teens took up the "challenge" all around the country. And many were happy to share those experiences online.

The overall stats are more encouraging than sensational cases make it seem. Tobacco use among teenagers, or instance, has gone down significantly in the past few years. Alcohol use is declining too.

Other recent examples of high-profile teen trends in substance abuse abound. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported "A troubling trend in teens drinking hand sanitizer," after six local teens were sent to the emergency rooms with alcohol poisoning after ingesting the cleanser for its high alcohol content. (Comedian Jimmy Kimmel had a shot of Purell himself as a gag on his talk show the next night: "Wow, that's terrible. These kids are really determined to get drunk," he joked.) Meanwhile, the hyped spread of "eyeballing" vodka--literally taking a shot of vodka through your eye socket, made headlines around the world last year.

But Karnik, who works with adolescent networks on and off-line, says that while social media makes it very easy for young people to share new trends-both positive and negative--such networks have always existed. Though bad ideas may have spread more slowly through word-of-mouth in the past, they were equally as problematic, he says.

"It was a high-school-to-high-school, or middle-school-to-middle-school pattern of spread before. And adults were largely unaware of these trends."

Karnik also says the overall stats are more encouraging that sensational cases make it seem. Tobacco use among teenagers, or instance, has gone down significantly in the past few years. Alcohol use is declining too.

But there are a few areas of concern nonetheless-and they're not hand sanitizer or cinnamon-based. "The areas where you see rises in abuse are cannabis and prescription drugs--prescription opiates in particular," Karnik says.

"Some media reports popularize that there's a big epidemic emerging about prescription drugs and young people, and there's an element of truth to that," he adds. "But is there an epidemic of hand sanitizer abuse out there, that's much harder to say."

Karnik notes that traditional medical tools aren't evolving fast enough to keep up with new cultural phenomena; few doctors will ask teen patients if they abuse hand sanitizer, when they ask about cigarettes or alcohol, for instance. "We're only now beginning to ask about prescription opiates," he says.

But as social media and internet technologies help spread new trends among teenagers, researchers at the University of Chicago among other faculties are beginning to look towards those same channels of spread to learn more about behavioral patterns.

"There is a sort of epidemic quality to substance abuse, and if we can study the ways these things unfold and spread online then that has the potential to greatly help us in the clinical context," Karnik says.

Web analytic tools--contained in Google or Twitter, for example--are slowly making their way into Karnik's line of study. "You know, kids often type the search terms [for news trends in illicit substances] into search engines," Karnik explains. "So that's a place where you can start to look at trends on the back end."

"We can take these questions about new drugs or new trends in substance abuse and ask Google to give us some broad trends perhaps that we can then hone down to know what's going on. That's going to be really interesting in the future," he says.

Such research is only in its infancy for now, but as teens continue to share their antics online, Karnik sees web analytics as a potentially powerful tool for real-time tracking. "From a public health standpoint, web tools are potentially a really great resource for us."

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Nadja Popovich is a writer and producer focusing on health, science, politics, and the overlap between the three. Her work has appeared on the Guardian U.S. and NPR, among other outlets. 

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