Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Today's Moral Panic - Paracetamol!

Schoolkids all over the country are challenging each other to attempt suicide by paracetamol overdose in a viral social media death cult or something, according to a bunch of people who really should know better

It's got everything. Social media is scary. What are your kids getting up to when you're not looking? Remember the ice bucket challenge? Remember neck nomination? It's that, except it's literally a suicide attempt. Try and take as many pills as possible as quickly as possible. Peer pressure is terrible!

At least I think that's the idea. The news reports seem a little low on detail. Which is strange, since this is a social media craze? The reports mainly focus on a poor mother urging others not to follow her daughter, who took an overdose and died four years ago. There is no suggestion this has anything to do with the recent 'craze'. We also have this tweet, from a seemingly credible (though perhaps not the most professional sounding) police account, and a statement from a councillor in East Ayrshire who has supposedly sent out letters to schools warning about it. Some of the reports contain a reference to a teenager in Ayrshire who was hospitalised, but there is no other detail on this. The first news site report I can find is this, from the Scotsman a week ago, seemingly the others are all copied from this. Isn't journalism great!

We'd imagine if it were a social media craze, there would be a social media footprint. Kids spreading the word about their latest super kool way to kill themselves. So let's check out social media, see if there is any evidence of this taking place. Here's the twitter hashtag. Entirely comments on the news stories and condemnation. As is always the case with particularly nasty trending topics on twitter, it's the nature of the algorithms used, and creates vicious cycles. There is not a single case there of a kid tweeting about doing the challenge, or encouraging others to do it. This is all recent though, so let's be a bit systematic. Here's all twitter usage of the hashtag.

As you can see, it's completely at zero throughout most of the time this 'challenge' has been supposedly occuring. There are three spikes. 

- Today (following today's articles linked above). 

- A week ago, following the Scotsman article.

- 5th May, following the original tweet by Coatbridge police.

There is no evidence at all here that the craze exists. Other than spikes caused by media activity, there is no background, and nothing at all before the original police tweet warning of a craze. The very first use of the hashtag is also on the 5th of May, by several local radio stations all owned by Bauer Media, who I suspect use the same social media intern. There's also this clip, but I can't get it to play properly after the first 5 seconds.

To give benefit of the doubt, the articles do mention facebook and instagram, not twitter. A social media craze localised entirely to one social network seems pretty unlikely, given what we've seen with other similar 'challenges' elsewhere on the internet, but I guess it's not impossible. Searching facebook to see what people are talking about is pretty tricky unless you're willing to pay big dollar, so unfortunately we'll have to leave that. Let's search instagram instead (which is tricky, but possible).

 Ah. 'Paracetamol challenge' gives us the same results.

In short, there is no evidence at all that this craze exists. It first emerged about 3 weeks ago, when there may or may not have been a teenager hospitalised for a paracetamol overdose. This is not an uncommon occurrence, sadly. It is possible the poor teenager subsequently claimed they were following a social media craze, and this led to the reaction from the police and council, but there is zero indication that said social media craze ever actually existed. At the very most maybe some kids got together and encouraged each other to take overdoses, and one actually did it. Maybe using facebook chat. None of this was remotely viral, and it certainly wasn't a craze spreading across the nation.

Instead we've got a common or garden variety moral panic, everyone piles in to show how virtuous they are by condemning it, and parents get worried and pile even more restrictions on what their kids can and can't do with their time. It'll all be over by tomorrow, and probably beneath my dignity to engage with it, but I guess you can all link anyone who talks about it to this post.

It's probably worth speculating a bit over what makes this panic successful. Paracetamol being available in every home in the nation must be a big part of it, it's difficult to be scared of something that isn't near to you. It focuses on kids, of course, and parents are always the target market. Social media is the new bogey man, so we can all get scared of that, and the icebucket/nek nominate thing must be important. There may be other factors, all suggestions are welcomed.

Here's a link to the samaritans! Don't kill yourselves kids!