Online impacts

The dangers of social media trends

Without monitoring and moderation, viral trends on social media can pose significant threats to health and well-being.


Social media has become a powerful tool and ubiquitous part of our lives. Millions of people from all over the world utilize platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook to connect, educate and inspire others. These global networks offer a space for individuals to share their thoughts and lives, express themselves, collaborate on ideas and stay informed. However, despite the many advantages and comforts of social media, there are some dangerous health effects associated with viral trends popularized by these apps.

While social media can easily and quickly disseminate accurate information to a large audience, it can just as easily and quickly spread misinformation. Some fads encourage extreme diets, exercise routines and unrealistic body standards that can lead to destructive behaviors. These can result in malnutrition, physical injury and mental health issues such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and more.

Trends that pose serious health risks need to be closely examined, monitored and moderated before they go viral. From the rapid circulation of misinformation to deadly pranks and increasing psychological stressors, social media has at times become a serious detriment to society’s health and well-being when used incorrectly and without medical guidance.

One trend that spread across social media platforms in 2018 was the “Tide Pod Challenge,” where people filmed themselves intentionally ingesting laundry detergent pods. This led to dozens of poison control cases, hospitalizations and injuries, prompting physicians and other healthcare experts to issue warnings about the hazards of consuming toxic substances.

Another popular social media trend called the “Choking Game” had individuals deprive themselves of oxygen to reach a high through self-strangulation, which led to several injuries and deaths. Physicians and other medical professionals worked with social media companies to remove content related to this craze and instead promoted awareness about the dangers it posed.

More recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came out against another alarming viral trend of overdosing on Benadryl (known generically as diphenhydramine) after a thirteen-year-old died from ingesting excessive amounts of the antihistamine. This comes on the heels of the “Nyquil Chicken” challenge that involved cooking chicken in Nyquil (a combination of acetaminophen, dextromethorphan and doxylamine), which was also becoming a widespread phenomenon among teenagers. The FDA, along with the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, as well as TikTok have issued multiple public statements warning of the dangers of misusing and abusing medications, whether prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs.

These are just a few examples that further emphasize the need for physicians and healthcare professionals to monitor and moderate trends before they go viral, and before anyone gets hurt. Medical expertise and advice can ensure the content being shared meets health and safety standards, that it’s vetted for accuracy and will not promote harm to oneself or others.

If left unchecked, medical misinformation and potentially dangerous trends can cause panic, confusion and distrust, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media became a breeding ground for inaccuracies and incorrect claims, including conspiracy theories and falsehoods that undermined the role of physicians during a time when many patients were distanced from in-person medical care. In the worst instances, these situations can result in actions that may have harmful or even deadly consequences. Such mania is often not based on scientific evidence, medical expertise or fact, yet has the capability of reaching large audiences and wreaking havoc among our communities.

Additionally, with the ability of social platform users to hide behind a screen and “troll” or harass others, a new level of cyberbullying emerged. This has had significant implications on mental health, leading to depression, anxiety and in some cases suicide.

There is both a place and a precedent for physicians and health experts to work with social media companies to combat the rise of these dangerous and sometimes fatal activities.

A healthy dose of skepticism and caution is crucial for anyone engaging and interacting online. Individuals should verify sources of information they receive through these platforms to discern truth from fiction. They should also be wary of trends that sound too good to be true, as these messages can be filled with falsehoods. Additionally, users should talk with their doctors before participating in new diets or exercise programs.

Beyond these steps, there are still areas of understanding and education that rely heavily on the knowledge of healthcare professionals. To establish a safe experience for social media users, physicians should and must be involved in content moderation for the purpose of debunking harmful and misleading trends that are not based on evidence, research or facts.

Increasing the presence and involvement of physicians and health experts on social media will better inform the public on best medical practices. This type of medical stewardship supports timely intervention to counteract dangerous trends, thereby creating a safer environment for the online community.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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