Was it only a month or so ago that news outlets around the country were breathlessly reporting that today's teens were getting whacked-out on hand sanitizer?
As the Los Angeles Times told the tale (and USA Today reprised it), "Six teenagers have shown up in two San Fernando Valley emergency rooms in the last few months with alcohol poisoning after drinking hand sanitizer."
If that's not enough for anxious parents to order sub-dermal tracker chips to place under their kids' skin, chew on this: "Some of the teens used salt to separate the alcohol from the sanitizer, making a potent drink similar to a shot of hard liquor. Distillation instructions can be found on the Internet."
Don't you dare think just because no one is actually doing something that it's not about to become the next big thing: "Although there's only been a few cases, county public health toxicology expert Cyrus Rangan says it could signal a dangerous trend."
The hand-sanitizer story is a classic of the particularly powerful news narrative that might be called "The Kids These Days" story. The recipe is as simple as it is intoxicating: Take kids, a wholesome product or activity (cleanser, say, or a sleepover), throw in drugs, booze, or sex (preferably all three), some form of vaguely scary technology (teh Interwebz, cell phones), and shake vigorously (like Mentos in a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi, or maybe Pop Rocks with a Coca-Cola chaser), and let it rip!
While we await the next fake news trend about teens and sex and drugs—and the coming federal ban on so-called bath salts and fake marijuana—here are five classic freakouts to contemplate.
Next: Oooh, oooh, that smell (no, not that one)...
5. Jenkem: Choice of a New Generation
In 2007, the Sheriff's Office of Collier County, Florida perpetrated one of the most ridiculous frauds in the annals of police work when it reported that kids were getting turned on by a "new drug called 'Jenkem,'" which was made from fermented urine and feces. Sure, kids today are into do-it-yourself culture, but given that real drugs are reportedly easier to score than ever, who exactly would be into what the cops averred was known by slang terms such as "butthash" and "fruit from crack pipe"?
The fecal matter and urine are placed in a bottle or jar and covered most commonly with a balloon. The container is then placed in a sunny area for several hours or days until fermented. The contents of the container will separate and release a gas, which is captured in the balloon. Inhaling the gas is said to have a euphoric high similar to ingesting cocaine but with strong hallucinations of times past.
The rumor-busting site Snopes.com, the authoritative guide to such things, has ruled that reports of Jenkem being "a popular drug in American schools" are false.
Next: And That's No Choke!...
4. The Choking Game: Fun For All Ages
If you've got kids—or are just a big David Carradine fan—you've probably read reports over the years about something called "the choking game." As National Public Radio reported just last month, the choking game revolves around kids strangling themselves or each other until they pass out or almost-pass out. The rush is supposed to be pretty awesome, if it doesn't kill you. But like most freakouts about juvenile behavior, nobody really has good data on the ubiquity of the activity. All we know for sure is that it's happening everywhere, all the time:
According to a study...published...in the journal Pediatrics, around 6 percent of more than 5,000 middle-schoolers surveyed in Portland, Ore., have tried the choking game. And about a quarter of them have tried it at least five times, the researchers reported.
...no one really knows how often the game is being played or how many kids may have died. Back in 2008, a national estimate put the death toll from the choking game at about 82 between 1995 and 2007. But the study relied on media reports that couldn't be verified independently. And many deaths that weren't reported in the news could have been missed.
The important thing is to remember, as the NPR headline puts it, "Deadly 'Choking Game' Comes With Big Risks" (the biggest risk, I'm guessing, is that it's deadly, right?).
The more prurient twist on the choking game stresses that "researchers said that students who had ever had sex and had used drugs in the last 30 days were at increased risk for participating in the choking game." Of course they were, if only because drug-taking, sexually active kids are more likely to sell newspapers and capture eyeballs.
Erotic asphyxiation's siren call is hardly confined to sweet youth. In 2009, 72-year-old actor David Carradine's "mysterious" death was attributed to a one-handed version of the choking game, as the star of Kill Bill and Kung Fu was found dead in a Thai hotel room closet with ropes around his neck and genitals. (What exactly was mysterious about such a death went unexplained in most news accounts.)
Next: It's Always The Time of the Month for Vodka-Soaked Tampons!...
Late last year, a Phoenix-area cop named Chris Thomas turned the public on to the twin threats of tampons soaked with booze and "butt-chugging," or inserting beer bongs rectally:
"What we're hearing about is teenagers utilizing tampons, soak them in vodka first before using them," Thomas said.
"It gets absorbed directly into the bloodstream. There's no barrier, there's no stomach acid to prevent it," Thomas said....
"This is definitely not just girls," Thomas said. "Guys will also use it and they'll insert it into their rectums."
And that's not all.
"Using a beer bong rectally is the same concept as a vodka soaked tampon," Thomas said.
As Reason's Jacob Sullum pointed out, rumors about butt-chugging and vodka-soaked tampons have been published all over the world. The locale and liquor vary, but all the accounts share an absolute lack of veracity and an unsurmountable challenge posed by basic human anatomy and sanitary napkins. That point was driven home by the detailed attempt of Huffington Post Canada editor Danielle Crittenden to get a buzz off a 120 proof tampon.
Snopes.com had originally listed the truth status of the butt-chugging and tampon stories as "undetermined," but more recently ruled them as "false."
Next: It's My Party and I'll Lie If I Want To....
2. Rainbow Parties: The Ultimate Oral Tradition
Only parents raised on Penthouse Forum letters could have come up with the idea of a "Rainbow Party," in which young girls (the younger the better!) wear different shades of brightly colored lipstick and successively perform oral sex on a boy, leaving a ROYGBIV spectrum of colors on his penis.
As Cathy Young pointed out in her 2006 Reason story, "The Great Fellatio Scare," the basic mechanics of oral sex undercut the notion almost as much as the absolute lack of evidence that any such gathering has ever happened anywhere outside of the fevered imaginations of grownups writing poorly sourced stories for the Washington Post and other mainstream news outlets.
From Young's piece:
In 2003, this peril was explored by Oprah herself, with the help of O magazine feature writer Michelle Burford, who interviewed 50 girls, some as young as 9, and painted a frightening picture of kiddie debauchery. “Are rainbow parties pretty common?” inquired a rapt Oprah, to which Burford replied, “I think so. At least among the 50 girls that I talked to…this was pervasive.”
Unless pervasive is tween-talk for bullshit—or maybe Jenkem—Rainbow Parties seem about as real as unicorns.
Next: Blinded By the Light, The Pretty, Pretty Light...
1. LSD: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Dead
The Don Quixote of "The Kids These Days" narrative may well be the story of college kids high on LSD who stared at the sun so long they blinded themselves.
As Snopes.com recounts it, in May 1967, The Los Angeles Times—most recently seen uncritically reporting on the Great Hand-Sanitizer Hooch Epidemic of 2012—published a story about four tripping Santa Barbara college students who "suffer[ed] serious eye damage" after spending hours staring at the sun.
Snopes points out all the earmarks of a hoax: None of the kids is named and neither is the "spokesman for the Santa Barbara Opthalmological Society," the doctor quoted in the story, or even the writer of the piece. Which is pretty much all you need to know about the story.
"The LSD horror story," writes Snopes, "was picked up by the Associated Press and quickly spread all over the U.S., appearing in such prominent news publications...as The New York Times and Time magazine." Better yet, only eight months later, The LA Times experienced a sort of editorial flashback: The paper published an almost identical story written by the AP and set in Pennsylvania.
What is it the newspaper guy says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Especially if you're talking about kids, sex, and drugs.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, which will be published in paperback with a new introduction on June 26. Go here to order your copy.