Just when we thought the specter of the Tide Pods challenge was behind us, there’s another TikTok trend to worry about: the ‘NyQuil Chicken’ challenge. This more recent social media phenomenon involves people cooking chicken breasts in cough syrup.
The trend, which likely originated as a joke, has gone viral and caused enough concerns about the dangers of actually cooking with NyQuil that it spurred the Food and Drug Administration to issue an advisory about it this week.
“The challenge sounds silly and unappetizing — and it is,” the FDA said in a statement. “But it could also be very unsafe. Boiling a medication can make it much more concentrated and change its properties in other ways.”
While the NyQuil Chicken challenge may be gross, it isn’t the first or last potentially dangerous health trend to hit social media. The FDA has grappled with sensations like this before.
For example, a previous TikTok challenge encouraged people to take significant doses of diphenhydramine, an allergy medicine, or other non-prescription medications.
However, these challenges are all part of a larger trend involving the proliferation of health misinformation on social media platforms in recent years, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of apps like TikTok.
Much of the problem lies in a lack of regulation, according to Jeffrey Blevins, a professor in the Department of Journalism and the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati.
“This is the kind of thing that TikTok could moderate, even though I think TikTok compared to other social media platforms has been a little more loath to do that,” Blevins noted. “It seems like lately more of the controversial stuff has involved TikTok.”
A recent NewsGuard report found that nearly 20% of videos that appear in search results on TikTok contain misinformation.
Other large tech platforms who’ve been under fire in recent years for health misinformation and disinformation in general — including YouTube and Facebook — have attempted to make some strides in battling false information.
TikTok’s self-regulation, however, has generally been lacking, though it states on its website that it “will remove misinformation that causes significant harm to individuals, our community, or the larger public regardless of intent,” including medical misinformation.
On the policy side, there currently is no government regulation over social media platforms in regards to misinformation. This isn’t for a lack of trying, though.
In July 2021, spurred by rampant anti-vaccination sentiment online, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN), introduced a bill that would aim to remove liability protections from large tech companies like Facebook and Twitter if misinformation continued to spread on their platforms. Lacking bipartisan support, the bill has stalled.
Other attempts to lock down some regulation over social media companies have faltered, Blevins said.
The lack of regulation “undercuts agencies like the FDA to be able to reach out to TikTok and say, ‘Hey, this is problematic,’” Blevins said.
That leaves the FDA with its current option: crafting the messaging itself. There is, however, a bit of a problem when the messaging is left in the FDA’s hands.
“The reason why a lot of their previous approaches are ineffective is they approach the problem like a professor would: here’s information, here are facts, here’s straightforward stuff,” Blevins said.
He continued: “People tend to respond to emotional content more so than anything on social media. I would encourage the FDA to think of more fun and creative ways that give the point that [NyQuil Chicken] is not a good idea. Maybe make fun of it. Young people, especially, respond to humor and snark.”
Dr. Jenny Yu, who heads the medical affairs team at Healthline Media, emphasized that agencies like the FDA or even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention need to package creativity and science in a way that allows messaging to get to people who have different ways of consuming information.
“An agency like the FDA has to keep pace with the changing cultural trends,” Yu said. “Creative agencies use creativity, toned voice in an empathetic way and medical information that’s evidence-based and reviewed by experts.”
Without government regulation or self-regulation by the companies, the onus also falls on public interest groups, parents and educators in addition to the FDA, Blevins noted. In that instance, there could be a role for NGOs or public interest groups to provide informative, creative content to counterbalance trending misinformation.
Ultimately, even when the NyQuil Chicken challenge falls to the wayside, there’s a clear pattern of health misinformation trending across social media platforms.
Some of it — like when hydroxychloroquine was promoted as a treatment for COVID-19 — is steeped in cultural politics and will likely continue as long as there’s no self-regulation from companies or at the policy level.
“My mind always goes to, what’s next? What’s down the pipe?” Blevins said. “I encourage people not to think of these things as a one off – like, ‘Thank goodness we’re past NyQuil Chicken now.’ No, there’s a pattern of medical misinformation that could be pretty [damaging long-term].”