This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
If you’ve ever spent time on Instagram, you’ve probably seen an ASMR video. Maybe you didn’t even know it.
For instance, you’re probably familiar with soap cutting ASMR videos, which sound like a xylophone, or emptying a bag of Scrabble letters onto a table. But more broadly, ASMR posts generally seek to trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response—a tingly feeling provoked by certain noises and sensory inputs. The community is huge: there are currently over 5.3 million Instagram posts tagged under #ASMR on Instagram (the genre is hugely popular on YouTube, too.)
However, there’s a genre of ASMR videos that you may have never heard of: chalk-eating. The content is exactly what it sounds like. People take videos of themselves chewing, crunching, and sometimes swallowing chalk. Sometimes it’s sticks of blackboard chalk, sometimes it’s large, asymmetrical, industrial size chunks of chalk.
The content creators are almost exclusively women, and while a large number of them post captions in Russian, there are women from all around the world posting videos of themselves chewing and swallowing chalk. And it’s not a small genre. The #chalkeating tag on Instagram has over 71,000 posts to date, and similarly, the #chalkasmr tag has over 34,000 posts.
An Instagram user who runs a repost account, meaning that they do not personally create any chalk-eating videos, told Motherboard in an Instagram direct message that they believe most people who make "chalk-eating" videos do not actually eat the chalk (The user asked that Motherboard withhold their account handle because certain members of the chalk-eating ASMR community have been bullied.)
"Almost every person who chews chalk or clay does NOT swallow it, as it can cause digestive issues," the user said. "Some clays you can swallow, but it’s still not a common thing in the community."
However, just by tapping around randomly, some people are clearly eating the chalk.
Let’s clarify something right off the bat: medically, it is not recommended that you eat chalk. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, swallowing large quantities of chalk can cause abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, and also shortness of breath and coughing. Eating chalk should not kill you, because it’s not toxic, but it’s not safe.
However, it would be oversimplifying to claim that chalk-eating videos are simply an example of the ASMR genre going too far and getting people sick: there’s actually a medical condition that can partially explain what may be happening here.
Pica, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is when an individual craves materials that can’t strictly be considered “food” for a period that’s longer than a month. This could include chalk, but also materials like clay, sand, dirt, glue, paper, and pretty much any other material you can imagine. It’s common in children, but it also occurs in teens and adults with unknown prevalence.
Since it can be brought on or exacerbated by mental conditions such as stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or autism, pica is classified as an eating disorder. But pica can also be caused by iron or zinc deficiency, or pregnancy.
In an Instagram direct message, user @lovepicaasmr told Motherboard that they have pica, but they do not swallow the chalk. "It started at about age three then I stopped a little after that," @lovepicaasmr said. "The cravings came back at about 12 and I’ve been chewing chalk ever since then."
But not everybody in this community has pica. In fact, the Instagram user who runs a chalk-eating ASMR reporting account claims that while ASMR has an “addicting” quality in general, and although chalk-eating induces ASMR for them, they hate eating chalk.
“I can tell you first hand, I tried chalk, one of the natural kinds that everyone “loves” and I IMMEDIATELY knew it was not for me,” the user told Motherboard. “And I frequently tell people, and it is almost always young women, who ask me if I chew chalk or clay the reasons why I don’t: 1) It was a nasty experience from both a taste and textural standpoint; 2) Dental work is expensive, and I’m not risking mine for something that I don’t enjoy.”
In a series of Instagram direct messages, the woman who runs the self-described "ASMR-PICA" account @tasteetastetastik told Motherboard that although she does not believe that she has pica, she got into the community after several months of using Instagram for voyeurism and making foam-focused ASMR videos. “Well I didn’t start eating it [chalk] until I was faced with stress,” she said. “Had some reoccuring family issues and it kind of propelled from there.”
User @tasteetastetastik told Motherboard that she knows that there are health risks associated with eating large amounts of chalk, and mainly engages in the activity for stress relief.
“Since I just started this past summer I can say it does give me some peace while I’m chewing it as I don’t always ‘eat’ not all of us do,” she said. “Although it is technically edible too much of it will mess with your bowels and digestion.”
Posts and comments from people in the chalk-eating Instagram community occasionally point out that chalk-eating predates the internet. Eating chalk is a cultural phenomenon in Georgia in eastern Europe, but some scholars have postulated that this is actually a symptom of widespread pica in the region.
Other people who eat chalk believe that the activity has a “detox” effect on the body. In fact, certain Etsy merchants capitalize on this narrative by selling chalk and advertising it as “edible” and tagging it under “detox.” However, “detoxing” has been called a "nonsensical" medical term, and eating chalk has no proven health benefits.
Still, there are currently 491 listings for "edible chalk" on Etsy. One of the chalk listings viewed by Motherboard had a “Bestseller” badge from Etsy, and was reportedly in 20 people’s carts.
It’s also worth noting that since there are hundreds of people posting videos of themselves eating chalk, a subculture has organically emerged from it. User @tasteetastetastik said that the chalk-eating ASMR community is close knit, caring for one another without judging.
“We are everyday people who just for whatever reason either vitamin deficiency, stress, etc should be respected and not judged,” she told Motherboard. “We are aware of health precautions and most of us do not consume this things nearly as much. Asmr is about visual, and all other sensory aspects. Sound especially.”
Similarly, user @lovepicaasmr said that they took comfort from the community they found on Instagram. "I got into ASMR because I saw other videos of people eating non food items, and It felt good to know there were other people like me."
Like many corners of the internet, there’s also a sense of comradery in being outside the norm. According to the Instagram user who runs an chalk-eating ASMR repost account, this has helped build trust in the community. “We all know we are a little left of average in what we find stimulates our ASMR experience, so there’s solidarity and kinship as well," the user said.
Again, it’s not healthy to eat chalk, but it’s important to remember that there’s a reason that people post content online that may seem unfamiliar or strange. And if you need resources, there’s help available.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find resources at the National Eating Disorder Association website or call its toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237.