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The 'Paracetamol Challenge' Is an Internet Teen-Suicide Craze That Doesn't Actually Exist

The kids are alright, but what's wrong with parents who want to believe this hoax?

Paracetamol (Photo by Sam-Cat)

Something has gone horribly wrong with our children. While the adult population has been busy engaging with brands and trying out unpronounceable vegetables in the sunlit world of hipsterdom, right under our noses some dark power is turning ordinary kids into monsters.

A few short years ago, they were happily snorting up designer drugs or rioting on the streets: doing things that might be dangerous, but are at least fun. Now they're all sallow, tubercular nihilists, bloodthirsty and self-destructive. If they were motivated by hatred, that would at least be understandable, but instead they're propelled only by a callous, vacant indifference. They don't care about society. They don't care about their own lives. They don't even want anything. Those that can are streaming out of the country to training camps in Syria, committing genocide out of sheer boredom. Their video games weren't exciting enough, and nobody's published a decent book in decades, so the only thing left to do is kill.


Meanwhile, those that stay here are waging another kind of campaign of takfiri extermination; a jihad across the desert of the psyche. The generation that had everything now wants nothingness; they're tumbling carelessly into the void. Their parents did so much to raise these kids, and this is how they're repaid: the kids are killing themselves, for no reason other than sheer spiteful ingratitude.

If you want proof, just look at the Paracetamol Challenge, the internet's latest youth culture craze. Not content with wholesomely dousing themselves in cold water, teens are now daring each other online to swallow lethal quantities of painkillers. It's the simplest sort of game: there's no high, and no achievement. If you win, nothing happens. If you lose, you die. If nothing else, it's a way out. In a world where every kind of fun or excitement has been ruthlessly commodified, turned into a sanitised product, it's not hard to see why the Paracetamol Challenge has taken off in such a big way.

Except, of course, it hasn't.

There's no real evidence to suggest that anyone has been taking overdoses of the drug after being challenged to do so online, anywhere, ever. There's certainly nothing to suggest that it's some kind of craze. Social media trends tend to be actually visible on social media; this one isn't. Of the thousands of tweets on the #ParacetamolChallenge hashtag, most are shocked adults squawking and condescending over the stupidity of the young; none are young people actually being stupid.


Which, when you actually stop and think about it, makes perfect sense. Kids are stupid, in the way that anyone from a plumber to a poet to a particle physicist tends to be pretty stupid, but they're not that stupid. Being a teenager is also generally quite shit, in a way that people looking back on the experience with the soft filters of analepsis don't tend to recognise. Much of the coverage of the putative challenge has focused on the tragic case of a 19-year-old who died after taking an overdose of paracetamol – in 2011, before the "craze" existed. The only other known victim is an unnamed teen in Scotland, whose hospitalisation after an overdose has been attributed to the challenge.

When suicide attempts happen, it's generally because there's something badly wrong in someone's life. But it's not hard to imagine worried relatives, desperate for an explanation, and deciding that it must all be the fault of the internet and that awful social media – as if Online were some possessive demon dangling human bodies like puppets, rather than a social field mostly coded by commercial interests. As if just being near a computer could make people think their lives are worthless.

The Paracetamol Challenge is a major craze, but it's not teenage psychology we should be worried about. In fact, something's very wrong with the adults. The story has been reported on, with ballooning panic, by the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and countless other publications. Despite it being utterly stupid and patently untrue, thousands of people are not just willing but almost eager to believe it. Like Satanic ritual abuse or Jewish blood libel, its structure is that of a fantasy. It isn't just a matter of people believing something untrue; they really want to believe it – and as psychoanalysts have known for a while, the false things we believe are often more important than the true ones.


Mass credulity of this kind signals a society that has an uneasy relationship with its children. In fact, our culture is suffused with images of kids killing each other for no good reason. The Hunger Games films (whose audience seems at this point to mostly consist of middle-aged cultural critics), for instance. The premise of the story makes no sense, based as it is on the bizarre idea that the televised murder of their children would make parents less likely to revolt. Just like the imagined game of pointless pill-popping, it's the flimsy screen for a moment of perverted catharsis. Grown-ups are fucked up.

A lot of this probably has to do with guilt. It's hardly a secret that the older generations have left young people a world that's not fit for service. In a way, the fantasy is true. A lot of kids really are being goaded into humiliating, debasing, and sometimes endangering themselves; it's just not their peers that are doing it. It's brute economic necessity.

With so many people competing for so few demeaning, underpaid jobs, the mere act of selling one's labour requires capitulating to demands far more senseless and stupid than any online challenge dreamed up by sadistic cyberbullies. Take, for instance, the plan to force young people to work 30 hours a week for a fraction of the minimum wage. The moronic internet challenge-y dimensions of all this are perfectly exemplified by Britain's Hardest Grafter, a proposed game show in which the penniless humiliate themselves for a year's minimum wage.


For those in school, Education Maintenance Allowances have been scrapped in England and Wales, while the combination of constant, rigid standardised testing and the blind chaos of academisation provide an institutional mirror for the merciless caprice of an imagined cybernetic culture of death. In a time when the future is being torn apart to be repurposed as the supports for an increasingly rickety past, there's something almost comforting about the idea of the Paracetamol Challenge. Believing in it is a way for people to absolve themselves of responsibility. The kids are dying, it tells us – but it's OK, they're just doing it to themselves.


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