The Margin: FDA to TikTok teens: the ‘Benadryl Challenge’ can kill you

The Margin: FDA to TikTok teens: the ‘Benadryl Challenge’ can kill you

This social media trend has had tragic results.

The “Benadryl Challenge,” which has been posted on the video-sharing app TikTok, sees users intentionally overdosing on the over-the-counter allergy medicine diphenhydramine (better known as Benadryl) to induce hallucinations.

Last month, a 15-year-old Oklahoma City teen died from an overdose of Benadryl that was blamed on the social media stunt. The “Benadryl Challenge” was also linked to sending three teens in Fort Worth, Texas to the hospital in May.

So the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a dire warning against taking high doses of the drug on Thursday, noting, “We are aware of news reports of teenagers ending up in emergency rooms or dying after participating in the ‘Benadryl Challenge’ encouraged in videos posted on the social media application TikTok.”

The FDA said that it is investigating these reports, and will update the public once it has conducted a more thorough review. The FDA added that it had also contacted TikTok and “strongly urged them to remove the videos from their platform,” and to be more vigilant about removing future videos promoting the dangerous practice.

A TikTok spokesperson told MarketWatch that this “Benadryl Challenge” has not “gone viral” on its platform, however, and that it is not something that “many” users are doing.

“Though we have not seen this content trend on our platform, we actively remove content that violates our guidelines and block related hashtags to further discourage participation,” the company responded in a statement over email. “We encourage everyone to exercise caution in their behavior whether online or off.”

“The safety and well-being of our users is TikTok’s top priority,” it also read. “As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, we do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury.”

Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine, marketed under the brand-name Benadryl, that is used to relieve allergy and cold symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing. It works by blocking histamine in the body, which is a substance that causes allergic symptoms. But the FDA warned that taking too much of it can cause serious heart problems, seizures, coma and death.

Benadryl maker Johnson & Johnson JNJ, +0.65% told MarketWatch in a statement by email that “This online ‘challenge’ is extremely concerning, dangerous and should be stopped immediately,” and urged people to use the product only as directed by the label, and for adults to keep all medications out of the reach of children.

“This online ‘challenge’ is extremely concerning, dangerous and should be stopped immediately.”

— Benadryl maker Johnson & Johnson

“As soon as we became aware of this dangerous trend, we contacted social media platforms to have the content removed,” the statement continued. “We posted safety information on our brand site and communicated with our retail partners and our industry trade associations to inform them about the ‘challenge’ and our actions to stop this behavior from spreading. We are continuing to monitor and work with safety teams at the various social media platforms to remove dangerous content.”

Johnson & Johnson isn’t the first company challenged by social media users misusing their products as part of a risky trend, of course. Who could forget the 2018 “Tide Pod Challenge,” where teens put packets of the Procter & Gamble PG, +0.50%  detergent in their mouths on camera? Or after Netflix’s NFLX, +2.18%  “Bird Box” film saw Sandra Bullock’s character navigating a dystopian future blindfolded, that spawned the “Bird Box Challenge” where people filmed themselves walking about blindly outside.

And the Benadryl situation underscores how social media companies besides TikTok, including Facebook FB, +1.99%, Twitter TWTR, +1.22%  and the Google-owned GOOG, +1.18%   YouTube, have also been facing greater scrutiny over the content allowed on their platforms — particularly with the U.S. presidential election less than 40 days way, and in light of misinformation that has been spread about COVID-19, such as a video pushing misleading information about hydroxychloroquine. The Big Tech companies were grilled on Capitol Hill over the summer about their business practices.