Why Are Teens Eating Tide Pods? An 18th-Century Prison Design Might Explain It

Tide detergent pods, from Procter & Gamble, are seen at the Safeway store in Wheaton, Maryland February 13, 2015. Gary Cameron/Reuters

A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An interesting and somewhat bizarre trend recently cropped up on the internet. The "Tide Pod challenge" simply entails filming yourself biting down on a Tide Pod—a laundry detergent capsule, which some say resembles a sweet.

Like many things on the internet, the origins of the challenge are murky and unclear. Some trace it back to a satirical article by The Onion, others to CollegeHumor videos and others still to various tweets about the appetizing appearance of the capsules.

Various U.S. and U.K. media outlets have claimed the trend is a "craze" that is "sweeping the internet." The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warned its 42,000 Twitter followers not to take the challenge. Facebook and YouTube have been busy scrubbing all videos referencing the challenge from their platforms, and Tide Pod manufacturer Procter & Gamble has recruited New England Patriots player Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski to tell consumers not to eat the pods.

Eating Tide Pods can be fatal, and the Washington Post reports that teenagers have been exposed to the capsules 37 times so far this year—only half of which were actually intentional. Yet this data, from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, doesn't reveal an enormous increase from 2017, when nearly 220 teens were exposed and around 25 percent of the cases were intentional.

Due in no small part to the press coverage, trends like these are quickly blown out of proportion. As with the creepy clown sightings of 2016 and 2017, or the Kylie Jenner lip challenge of 2015, the mainstream media seems to add to the hysteria surrounding these fads, which only serves to extend their relatively short shelf-life.

Some such coverage mourns the decline of younger generations—as though millennials and "Gen Z-ers" have a monopoly on stupidity. But as the brilliant Pessimists Archive podcast has shown, hand-wringing over the state of younger generations is nothing new, and there's no evidence to suggest that today's young people are inherently more reckless than previous generations.

What is different about today's young people, though, is that they have the technology to record their stupidity for posterity, as well as a desire to push boundaries and attract viewers to the content they post online. This is the "attention economy" in action, whereby attention is an increasingly scarce resource, which users are desperate to gain as ever greater amounts of content are put online.

At their core, these trends are born and driven by what people do when others might be looking. The attention economy can help to explain the powerful effects of being watched on the way humans understand, conform to and deviate from what's "normal." And this, in turn, gives us a way to make sense of the Tide Pod challenge and other internet phenomena, such as the vlogger Logan Paul's fall from grace.

The panopticon is a theory of surveillance and social conditioning proposed by Michel Foucault in the 1970s, and based on a prison design by Jeremy Bentham. It suggests that people will police themselves and conform to social expectations if they believe that they could be being watched at any moment. Ideas about what is "normal" and "appropriate" take on vast power and significance.

Bentham's panopticon prison Jeremy Bentham/Wikimedia Commons

On the face of it, the panopticon seems to apply rather aptly to conversations around digital spaces and our desire to be liked online. In the 21st century, we are constantly being observed by a wide network of "friends" via social media apps, and by neighbors and strangers in increasingly crowded cities. In a world where everyone is potentially being watched, there's great pressure to conform to social expectations, many of which are unrealistic and unattainable, especially when it comes to beauty, wealth or happiness.

But Foucault's panopticon is based on the idea of a few powerful people watching the many. In the case of social media, the opposite could be true, too—the many are increasingly watching the few. In the "synopticon," society holds up individuals such as the Kardashians as ideal figures of femininity and masculinity.

Instead, the few with power are observed, scrutinized and mimicked. We see this time and time again during celebrity "crises"; whenever Justin Beiber, Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears veers away from the norm, their behavior is discussed, dissected and criticized by the public. So the synopticon also strengthens the conventions that tell people which behaviors are acceptable—and which are not.

The Tide Pod challenge is not fully explained by either the panopticon or the synopticon. Social media was meant to level the playing field by giving everyone their own personal publishing outlet. But in practice, it means that the general public are now competing with celebrities to be heard and observed: Welcome to the "omniopticon."

Here, we are all watching and (to varying degrees) being watched: both through increased social media use, and by platforms' algorithms and tracking data. Having so many voices across so many different platforms not only leads us towards conformity, but also towards a culture of one-upmanship in the quest for attention. There has been a shift towards increasingly extreme behavior and problematic publicity stunts.

Logan Paul recently gave us an example. The YouTube star, known for posting prank videos, faced a public backlash after posting a video of himself with a dead body in a known suicide location in Japan. The mounting pressure to outdo oneself and others demands more extreme content, until eventually—inevitably—a line is crossed.

Whether by embodying beauty ideals or eliciting laughs, everyone in the omniopticon is scrambling to be at the center of attention and hold power and influence, however fleetingly, over what people are talking about. It's becoming apparent that this competition is leading towards a culture of extremes. People are pushing the limits in order to get noticed, and this includes doing bizarre and even deadly things—like eating laundry detergent.

Harry T. Dyer is a lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia.