Earlier this month, social media users were shaking their heads at the latest example of the crazy antics of Gen Z: NyQuil chicken. The slimy, teal concoction was the latest dangerous social media trend, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which begged people to not cook chicken in cold medication. News of the warning began to spread in the media.
But data fails to show NyQuil chicken was more than a few viral posts before the FDA’s Sept. 15 announcement. It wasn’t until after the warning that interest in NyQuil chicken spiked.
Folklore experts note that the NyQuil chicken challenge seems to be the latest internet “trend” to receive massive amounts of coverage despite few or zero real-world examples.
“Every week we have a new Tide Pod challenge, a new NyQuil chicken, a new Blue Whale suicide challenge,” said Andrew Peck, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Miami University whose research examines hoaxes, rumors and urban legends.
“From the perspective of a concerned parent, this all must seem new and scary,” he added. “From the perspective of a folklorist, this is something that people have been doing for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
The FDA released its warning after it found “social media trends promoting dangerous misuse of medications,” according to spokesperson Courtney Rhodes.
The federal agency did not address questions on how many people were taking part in the challenge before it issued its statement or whether there have been any reported illnesses or deaths related to NyQuil chicken.
TikTok confirmed that there were only five searches for NyQuil chicken on its platform on Sept. 14, the day before the FDA published its statement. By Sept. 21, there were roughly 7,000 searches, as first reported by Buzzfeed News.
Searching for “NyQuil chicken” and “sleepy chicken” on TikTok now directs viewers to a page saying online challenges can be dangerous.
“This is not trending on our platform, but we will remove content if found and strongly discourage anyone from engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves or others,” reads a statement from the social media platform.
Data from Google Trends also shows searches for NyQuil chicken took off after the FDA’s Sept. 15 statement was released.
Folklore experts say purported risks to children and teens blowing up despite scant evidence of being widespread trends is nothing new.
in Halloween candy to harm children. The only proven case occurred in 1974 when a man put cyanide in his own son’s Pixy Stix.
Similar rumors today can travel faster and reach more people through the internet.
Peck pointed to the “Momo challenge,” an internet hoax that said people were using WhatsApp and YouTube to convince children and teenagers to commit self-harm or suicide.
Then there were rumors of a “slap a teacher” challenge in 2021, which resulted in school systems issuing warnings and news outlets attributing violent incidents to the challenge.
A report from Harvard University later found there was no evidence the challenge existed. Instead, it appears to have spread through groups of worried parents and educators on Facebook, not among students on TikTok.
“People talking about something doesn’t mean they’re actually doing it,” said James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell University.
The Tide Pod challenge, in which people filmed themselves taking a bite into the brightly-colored laundry detergent packets, is another recent example. The videos triggered public health warnings – including a “high alert” notice from the American Association of Poison Control Centers – and numerous media reports.
Intentional exposures to single-load laundry detergent packets did rise among 13- to 19-year-olds from 53 incidents in 2017 to 86 in the first three weeks of 2018 alone. But cases reexamined a small fraction of the 40 million-plus teenagers in the U.S.
“Yes, there were a very small number of people who actually tried (the Tide Pod challenge). But the way it was depicted was almost entirely satirical or parody,” said Lynne McNeill, an associate professor of folklore at Utah State University. “It will always look like more people are trying it than actually are.”
While there’s little evidence NyQuil chicken was a widespread trend, there are some videos and posts that show people cooking chicken in cold medication – something the FDA warns could have serious side effects.
Sam Gordon, a 24-year-old content creator who has upwards of 60,000 followers on TikTok under the name narczilla, filmed himself taking a bite of chicken cooked in ZzzQuil in 2020. Goron said he wasn’t aware of the other NyQuil chicken posts when he made his video. He has since removed the post from TikTok.
Gordon made clear that the video was a joke that most young viewers seemed to be in on.
“When you’re born online and you have unfiltered internet access at such a young age, it’s terrible for your brain. Like, it’s not good. But the one thing is you learn pretty quick is what’s fake and what’s not because it’s just what you’ve been around your whole life,” he told USA TODAY. “It’s just a different humor style that’s just very, very fringe.”
Nevertheless, the FDA warns that cooking chicken in medication can be dangerous.
“Even if you don’t eat the chicken, inhaling the medication’s vapors while cooking could cause high levels of the drugs to enter your body. It could also hurt your lungs,” the FDA said in its statement. “Put simply: Someone could take a dangerously high amount of the cough and cold medicine without even realizing it.”
McNeill said it’s important for officials to weigh in on internet fads that could be dangerous but believes their statements could also cause harm and stoke generational divides.
“People look at these legends as evidence that Gen Z is misguided or lazy or unintelligent,” she said. “It becomes a way to dismiss people because you believe their actions are so insane, when in fact no one’s actually really taking those actions.”
Official statements and subsequent media coverage of internet challenges could also increase the number of people taking part in the act, according to Peck.
“It might not have existed in the first place, but once you get enough eyeballs and it looks like it’s trending, that’s when you start getting imitators,” he said.
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