A mother in Britain was furious: Her daughter’s arm was disfigured with a nasty, blistery burn. And the burn was thanks to something called the “deodorant challenge”.
So the mum did what many parents might do in 2018: She warned the internet about it.
“For any parents who have children, please, please sit them down and show them these pictures ... These are the damaging results of something known as ‘The Deodorant Challenge’,” Jamie Prescott wrote on Facebook last week. Prescott said the challenge was “currently doing the rounds in Yate,” a small city outside Bristol, “and literally involves spraying deodorant on to someone else for as long as possible”.
The damage caused by the deodorant challenge is very real. It comes not from the deodorant itself, but from the delivery method. An aerosol spray cools quickly on the skin, essentially producing frostbite, which is essentially a burn. The longer the spray on the skin, the worse the damage.
Prescott’s post has more than 4,700 shares on Facebook, and has become the main source for a wave of news articles warning about dumb thing teens were doing because of the internet. The Sacramento Bee in the US called it a “dangerous fad”. The International Business Times based in the US also said it was a “craze”.
Dumb and dangerous online teen challenges are very popular in the modern news cycle. And they bring with them a whole world of factual murkiness. In this case, the challenge itself appears to be real and dangerous. But there’s little definitive evidence that it has actually gone viral among teenagers in Britain or elsewhere on social media. Instead, the thing that trends is often the warning about the challenge.
Google Trends shows search interest climbing for “deodorant challenge” only after Prescott’s warning started getting media attention, with relatively little interest before that. The search term previously peaked in search interest in 2017, when the last panic about the challenge spread through the news.
On YouTube, there are some videos of kids showing their injuries from the challenge going back five years, but none seem to have gone “viral” - their view counts are in the hundreds or low thousands.
Basically, the deodorant challenge is real, but the warnings appear to be more viral than the challenge itself. And it’s hardly the only teen challenge to be propelled into the news cycle in this way.
Last month, there was a massive moral panic about the “condom challenge” where teens snort a condom up their nose. Yes, people really have done this on the internet, and yes, it is incredibly dangerous. But even as the “condom challenge” swept through the news cycle, there was no evidence to suggest that the years-old dumb idea on the internet was actually seeing a revival among teens.
And then there was the spread of the Tide Pod Challenge, probably the most popular meme of 2018 for adults who want to mock dumb teens - even though The Washington Post reported at the time that laundry pod poisonings are actually trending downward.
“The word ‘trend’ is the most important aspect of these stories,” said Alex Kasprak, a reporter at Snopes, a fact-checking site. As the condom challenge spread, Snopes rated the news as “mostly false”. The kernel of truth was that the condom challenge was real and dangerous. The trend itself was false, but spread, Kasprak notes, “because ‘kids are so dumb’ is a real popular thing to talk about”.