The Cinnamon Challenge: when dares go viral

Parents, have you heard about the Cinnamon Challenge?

If not, here’s what it is: you swallow a tablespoonful of cinnamon in 60 seconds without drinking fluids. Preferably while being videotaped.

Sounds easy enough. But it isn’t. It turns out that cinnamon triggers a severe gag reflex. There are more than 50,000 YouTube videos of people trying to do it—and what they mostly show is people coughing out a cloud of brown dust and then gagging and vomiting.

Most of the time, after the coughing and gagging and vomiting subside, people are fine. But not always, which is why doctors want to get the word out. If in the midst of all that coughing and gagging some of the cinnamon gets into the lungs, it can cause wheezing, pneumonia or even serious lung damage.

What’s particularly worrisome is that more and more people (usually young adolescents) are “accepting” this challenge. According to a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, in just the first month of 2012 there were 178 calls to poison control centers related to the Cinnamon Challenge—up from 51 in all of 2011.

The reason: social media. The increase in calls to the Poison Center coincided with the increase in YouTube videos. In January 2012, the study authors said that the Cinnamon Challenge website (yes, there is such a thing) boasted that it had 70,000 Twitter mentions every single day. I watched one video that had nearly 10 million views. (Interestingly, the girl said she was trying it because she got more than 80 “likes” on her Facebook status when she said she was thinking of doing it.) The authors of the study found one video that had been viewed more than 19 million times.

Adolescents do dumb stuff. Anyone who has an adolescent, or has been one, knows this. The reason is rooted in biology, actually. Adolescents, like children, can learn a lot of information quickly—and yet at the same time, their brains are maturing. The problem is that this maturation process happens gradually, working from the back to the front of the brain, so that the front, or frontal lobe, is the last part to mature. And what does the frontal lobe do? It controls insight and judgment. It’s the part of the brain that tells you that the Cinnamon Challenge is pretty stupid.

“What does the frontal lobe do? It controls insight and judgment. It’s the part of the brain that tells you that the Cinnamon Challenge is pretty stupid.”

This actually makes some sense, if you think about what’s going on in adolescents. There is so much they need to learn in order to be independent adults—and much of that learning, and becoming independent, involves taking risks. Being young is about being willing to take chances, to try things that you’ve never done before, whether it’s going away to college or learning to drive or falling in love. Those of us with fully functioning frontal lobes get much more nervous about these endeavors.

The challenge for parents, pediatricians, teachers and everyone else that lives and works with adolescents is helping them safely navigate those years before the frontal lobe is up to speed. Social media makes our job tougher, that’s for sure. Because when you think about it, most of the really Stupid Teen Tricks happen because of a dare, because of the crowd. With social media, that crowd is endlessly big—and full of dares.

So while we all need to be talking to youth about the dangers of the Cinnamon Challenge, the more important conversation we need to be having with them is about social media. The answer isn’t to stop youth from using social media—even if that were possible (which it’s not), it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are many ways that social media can connect us, teach us and help us. But we need to be thoughtful and self-aware as we use it—both of which are tough for adolescents. That’s where we come in.

Instead of rolling our eyes at social media, as grownups have a tendency to do, we need to get involved. We need to watch some of these crazy videos with our teens, and help them think about what they are seeing. We need to help them understand how social media can affect them—and guide them through healthy decision-making. And although it’s hard, we have to do it in a non-judgmental way.

Remember, before our frontal lobes matured, we too might have thought that 80 “likes” on Facebook was a good enough reason to do something stupid. Thankfully, with time and guidance, we outgrew that kind of reckless impulsiveness (mostly). Today’s teenagers will too, but growing up in the digital age, they may need a bit more help.

Check out the Common Sense Media website and the Center on Media and Child Health for advice on digital parenting.

And to learn more about how adolescent brains develop, check out this video of Boston Children’s Dr. Frances Jensen explaining it: