In 2016, small online communities started joking about eating the colorful detergent capsules known as Tide pods, which may look appetizing to young kids but most definitely aren’t safe for consumption. (The conversation may have been triggered by an article in the Onion in late 2015, titled “So Help Me God, I’m Going to Eat One of Those Multi-Colored Detergent Pods.”)
The joke didn’t go viral until late 2017, when a meme about eating Tide pods picked up steam on social media. It wasn’t long before YouTube challengers (people who film themselves doing crazy or dangerous things to get views) jumped on the bandwagon. In January 2018, YouTuber Aaron Swan made the first version of the Tide pod challenge — but he didn’t actually eat the Tide pod, and therein lay the real message behind this particular “challenge.” It’s a really bad idea to eat Tide pods.
Unfortunately, some teenagers didn’t get the memo about irony and did actually eat Tide pods, but it was far from the global trend the media would have had us believe. According to TIME, there were 53 cases of intentional misuse of Tide pods in teenagers in 2017, and 39 cases in the first 15 days of 2018, which does suggest the problem was on the rise. However, consumer protection groups have been warning people about laundry pods since 2013, and exposure is far more likely to occur in kids younger than five, or in elderly adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia, than in teenagers.