In early 2018 there were reports of teenagers taking part in the perilous “Tide Pod Challenge.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, in 2019 there’s a new fad circulating on social media. But while the so-called “Shell-On Challenge” may not be as harmful as consuming laundry detergent, it’s no less bizarre – and parents need to know the dangers.
Of course, peer pressure can sometimes easily influence teenagers. And as a result, young adults might sometimes be coerced into doing things that they know are wrong or dangerous – just to fit in or feel accepted. But when youngsters have access to social media, influences can emerge from far beyond teens’ immediate circles of friends.
Social media has altered the ways in which we interact with people and the world around us, after all. Snapchat in particular encourages an instant response between its users – due to the brief timeframe in which messages can be viewed. And within the context of this new online world, a funny and popular form of humor has emerged. This is the meme.
A meme usually takes the form of an out-of-context image presented with the addition of a humorous phrase or idea. This could include, say, witty misspellings or purposefully modified grammar. Memes can also sometimes be short videos or GIFs. But in all cases the aim of a meme is to quickly present or communicate an entertaining thought to a wide audience.
One particularly famous meme can be traced back to an online community run by a venture named Straight Dope. You see, in 2013 – shortly after the detergent line known as Tide Pods was launched – a thread emerged on the Straight Dope message board. This discussion raised an issue about Tide Pods and what they’re actually for.
Specifically, Straight Dope’s online conversation centered around how young children might mistake Tide Pods for candy. But elsewhere online, this theme took on a slightly different angle. A tweet dated March 5, 2012, for example, simply asked the question, “Why does a Tide Pod look so good to eat?”
Then, around 2015, the subject took an even more sinister turn. In fact, satirical news website The Onion published an article about the appeal of eating Tide Pods – as told from a child’s point of view. And despite being fictional, the article actually presented an idea supported by real-life instances of more than one child every day being hospitalized due to Tide Pod ingestion.
The notion of consuming Tide Pods subsequently snowballed, with more articles and even comical sketches playing on the concept. Tide Pod in particular was singled out due to its food-themed scents, such as “sour apple,” seemingly making the laundry capsules appear entirely edible. Then a strange phenomenon occurred.
Until 2017, you see, Tide Pod memes seemingly existed only to entertain the crazy idea of eating the laundry capsules – without actually encouraging anyone to do it. But in early 2018 a new take swept across social media. Worryingly, in fact, teenagers began physically imbibing the detergent in what became known as the Tide Pod Challenge.
Yes, the Tide Pod Challenge actually involved teenagers filming themselves eating the detergent capsules and posting the videos to platforms such as YouTube. Some participants would get creative with their contribution, too. In fact, some even “cooked” the tabs before consuming them. But, of course, there are dangers attached to ingesting products that are intended to clean clothes.
Laundry detergent is, after all, made up of potent chemicals that can have detrimental effects to anyone who eats them. The chemicals can in fact burn the esophagus or airways, which might result in severe breathing difficulties. In some cases where laundry pods have accidentally been eaten by adults suffering from dementia, the patients have even died.
Fortunately, then, it seems that most teenagers learned from their misdemeanors, and the Tide Pod Challenge, like all fads, soon passed. Until now. Because today the dare has seemingly been replaced by a new contest encroaching on social media. Yes, in 2019 it appears as though Snapchat users in particular have been caught up in a new spectacle called the Shell-On Challenge.
The Shell-On Challenge isn’t as risky as its predecessor – though it’s still pretty strange. And while there’s no reason to panic about dozens of teenagers making themselves very ill, parents should nevertheless be wary. Because even though there’s little risk of imminent death, there are still dangers involved in the craze.
So the idea of the Shell-On Challenge is that teenagers provoke one another into consuming foods still encased in protective wrappers. Now, a “shell” would normally imply the natural encasing of, say, an egg or a nut. In this challenge, however, there seems to be a liberal interpretation of what can count as a shell.
In some cases, then, the outer shell of the food consumed in the Shell-On Challenge needn’t be a solid one. It can therefore include foods that have natural skins that wouldn’t usually be eaten. For example, it’s normal to consume the skin of an apple – but the peel of a banana or an orange would typically be removed.
Yet it’s also possible to take the Shell-On Challenge to its opposite extreme. That’s to say that, while you’d normally eat the skin of an apple, you would stop before consuming its core. However, the notably strange Snapchat dare doesn’t stop at the cores and protective wrappings that nature offers up.
So it’s apparently typical for those taking part in the Shell-On Challenge to consume foods with their skins on. Indeed, there are numerous videos circulating on Twitter and Instagram of people taking large bites out of unpeeled bananas. There are also snippets of others nibbling on hard-boiled eggs still encased in their shells.
And if you so choose, you can watch people online chowing down on oranges or even lemons without removing the peels. Or you might look on in bewilderment as some people appear to eat kiwis still encased in their tough, furry skins. But ultimately, it wouldn’t be a challenge without pushing the limits.
To take the Shell-On Challenge to the next level, then, there has been a further interpretation of what constitutes a “shell.” So while it might seem bizarre enough that anyone would eat fruit with its skin or peel on, some participants subsequently began biting into foods still wrapped in their packaging. And this is when alarm bells started to ring.
Liam Hamm is a sophomore at Tempe, Arizona’s McClintock High School. And one day, the student decided that he would take part in the Shell-On Challenge. His chosen food was the humble carrot. Now, eating an unpeeled carrot isn’t particularly demanding. In fact, some argue that there are nutrients to be gained from eating the peel.
But eating the carrot’s skin wasn’t Hamm’s challenge. Instead, the teenager took a bite out of the carrots while they were wrapped up in plastic. That’s right. The sophomore nonchalantly chomped through a plastic bag. And, of course, his friends captured it on video.
The video of Hamm seemingly chowing down on the plastic-wrapped carrots was then posted to Snapchat. It also carried the caption, “Y’all eat your lunch with or without the shell.” Many observers, however, were baffled. As a Twitter user wondered, “Why do I live in a generation where challenges like the shell challenge exist?”
Meanwhile, another Twitter user commented, “I wondered why Boomers judged GenZ until I saw a thread about the ‘Shell-On Challenge.’ After 12 videos of high schoolers eating bananas with the peel on… I can finally say I relate to the Boomers.” But it turned out that Hamm wasn’t taking his challenge all that seriously.
Hamm told AZ Central in April 2019, “It looks funny because it’s not really a shell, but people are calling things shells. I guess that is what’s funny about it.” Although the student admitted that eating plastic probably isn’t healthy, he didn’t see much wrong with eating something organic – such as a banana skin.
“It’s the Tide Pod Challenge minus the fact that it’s not dangerous,” Hamm explained. So the teenager, it seems, has a blasé attitude toward the Shell-On Challenge and the idea of imbibing a non-consumable substances such as cardboard and plastic. But is this manner of thinking actually a hazard?
“Organic material like fruit peels are typically not dangerous,” Max Plitt, a physician in the Chicago area, told the New York Post in April 2019. “[Lemon] zest is often used in recipes, which is the shavings of the rind.” But what would be the effect of eating something like cardboard?
After all, that had also happened. As part of the Shell-On Challenge, in fact, one participant took a huge bite out of a cardboard box through to the cereal contained inside. Fortunately, though, cardboard probably won’t kill you – but it’s still far from healthy. And the suggestion that it’s a good source of fiber is, of course, a poor one.
But just to be clear, the fiber that cardboard is made from is not the same as dietary fiber. Cardboard fiber is called sclerenchyma and is a substance that the human body can’t break down. At best, sclerenchyma will pass through your system completely undigested. There is, however, another risk from consuming cardboard.
It seems that certain nasty chemicals are utilized when creating cardboard. Binding agents, for instance, help to form the material, and toxic inks are applied to the finished packaging. These form a poisonous cocktail that wouldn’t be very good for a human being if ingested. Besides, you shouldn’t eat cardboard anyway; it’s just weird.
Yet plastic is far more robust than cardboard and that is the material on which Hamm appeared to chow down. In fact, plastic can actually take as long as a millennium to fully break down. So considering the non-compostable makeup of plastic, the effects of it navigating the digestive system can’t possibly be good.
As Plitt described to the New York Post, “Eating plastic can be dangerous. BPA has been suggested to influence hormones. Chemicals in PVC like vinyl chloride have been linked to cancers.” BPA – or Bisphenol A – is the substance that gives plastic its durability. The Shell-On Challenge, then, is potentially far from the harmless fun that Hamm suggested.
So parents have every reason to worry about their children’s welfare if their offspring decide to undertake the Shell-On Challenge. And as we’ve seen, this new fad – although not as much of a deadly risk as the Tide Pod Challenge – carries its own health warnings. But is everything really as it seems with this social media craze?
Well, numerous news outlets jumped on the story warning parents of the dangers of the Shell-On Challenge. And international news websites even gave the fad coverage too. But The Daily Beast offered a different angle to the story. It seemed, the website argued, that there was something in the teens’ videos that many had missed.
In April 2019 The Daily Beast ran the headline, “Shell-On Challenge: The Viral Hoax Fooling Local News Into Thinking Teens Are Eating Plastic For Fun.” The news outlet then described what other reports had suggested that teenagers were doing. You see, the focus of The Daily Beast’s story was different to anybody else’s.
Indeed, The Daily Beast suggested that the Shell-On Challenge is, in fact, a prank. As the news site’s writer Will Sommer observed, “Like other recent, much-hyped social media challenges, there’s little evidence that this supposed trend is real.” This is a theory that Know Your Meme senior editor Matt Schimkowitz supports too.
As previously mentioned, much of the Shell-On Challenge news coverage implied that the craze was largely confined to Snapchat. But Snapchat’s unique feature is that its users’ videos are only available for a limited time. So if the fad was a hit, Schimkowitz argued, it would’ve spread to other channels such as Instagram or YouTube.
“Either [the Shell-On Challenge is] truly only on Snapchat – making it basically the first and only Snapchat trend not to bleed over to Instagram or YouTube,” Schimkowitz described to The Daily Beast. “Or it’s not actually a thing, which is my hunch.” The news outlet made other pertinent observations as well.
The Daily Beast noted how reports relied on only a handful of clips to illustrate their narratives. And aside from in Hamm’s case, most people in the videos would eat fruit with its skin still on. Yet another image circulated of a cereal packet with a bite-sized hole in the box – and this supported an important observation.
You see, most Shell-On Challenge videos seemingly ended with the participant spitting out whatever they had taken a bite of. And others cut off before anything was actually swallowed. Plus, the image of the nibbled cereal box came from Tate Turner – a Florida-based photographer. And Turner actually admitted that he didn’t eat the packaging while underlining the stupidity of the perceived craze.
“It’s just a dumb trend,” Turner emphasized in an email to The Daily Beast. “You don’t actually eat [the packaging] – although I did take a bite to make it as real as possible. But yeah, you don’t eat the ‘shell.’ It’s just poking fun at dumb things.” So please don’t take the Shell-On Challenge seriously, kids. It’s pretty stupid, after all.