Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Is the TikTok Benadryl Challenge Actually Suicide Promotion?

Benadryl's active compound, diphenhydramine, has been known to cause serious overdoses and death since at least the 1980s.
Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: April 21, 2023
The Benadryl Challenge on TikTok may be thinly veiled suicide promotion
A file photo of anti-suicide graffiti on the Golden Gate Bridge in December of 2019. The continual emergence of TikTok’s “Benadryl Challenge,” which most recently cost a 13-year-old Ohio boy his life, may be less an ill-advised social media trend and more the promotion of suicide. (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An Ohio 13-year-old has died from an overdose of an over-the-counter medicine after following the encouragement of videos on social influencing app TikTok, a platform owned and operated by a mainland Chinese company under the auspices of the ruling Communist Party.

While at first glance the calamity appears as a newly trending, but isolated incident resulting from ill thought out social media fads, the Benadryl Challenge on TikTok actually dates back to at least 2020. 

Medical studies journaling Benadryl’s active chemical as causing overdoses and being used as a suicide mechanism also date back to the 1980s.

A recent tragedy

Columbus media outlet ABC6 reported on April 16 that after Jacob Stevens took 12 to 14 pills as part of a TikTok “challenge” purporting to induce harmless hallucinations, the only trip the boy experienced was one to the hospital. 

As a result, Jacob Stevens spent a week on a ventilator before passing away.

“Now his parents want you to see the photo of Jacob in the hospital, showing what this challenge did to their son,” the article wrote, accompanied by photos of the intubated teenager lying unconscious in a hospital bed.

Diana Stevens, Jacob’s grandmother, told ABC6, “I’m going to do anything I can to make sure another child doesn’t go through it.”

The father, Justin, aptly stated that when his son died after six days on the assisted breathing machine, it was “the worst day of his life.”

Justin told the outlet that Jacob “was at home with friends when he overdosed,” and that the boy’s friends “filmed him attempting the social media challenge when all of a sudden his body started seizing.”

The father told ABC6 that doctors at the hospital were forced to give the heavy verdict that Jacob would not survive the incident, “No brain scan, there was nothing there. They said we could keep him on the vent that he could lay there but he will never open his eyes, he’ll never breathe, smile, walk or talk.”

The family had a warning for other parents who have younger children and allow them to use cellphones and the Internet unsupervised: “Keep an eye at what they’re doing on that phone. Talk to them about the situation. I want everyone to know about my son.”

Persistently trendy

As of time of writing, a search for “Benadryl Challenge” on the TikTok website does not produce any results.

Instead, the platform produces a message that states, “You’re not alone. If you or someone you know is having a hard time, help is always available,” and offers the telephone number for the Suicide Canada hotline.

Although mention of the challenge outside of TikTok was sparse before Jacob’s death, the Benadryl Challenge was far from novel.

In November of 2020 as society was amidst the impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown and work from home government measures, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert on the challenge, stating, “We are aware of news reports of teenagers ending up in emergency rooms or dying after participating in the ‘Benadryl Challenge’ encouraged in videos posted on the social media application TikTok.”

Similar warnings were issued as far across the world as Africa where the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) issued a caution to both the public and medical professionals on the high degree of danger posed by large doses of the drug.

The topic was likewise tackled at the time by mainstream names as big as Harvard University, who warned in a blog post, “While it’s true that diphenhydramine [Benadryl’s active compound] can make you high and make you hallucinate, when you take too much of it you can also have seizures, pass out, have heart problems, or even die.”

The latest of several

The death of Jacob Stevens from a Benadryl overdose may be the most recent, but it wasn’t the first.

Although news articles on earlier deaths have become sparse or non-existent on search engines, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) chronicled that in May of 2020 “three teenagers in Fort Worth, Texas, were hospitalized for diphenhydramine toxicity after viewing a Benadryl Challenge on TikTok.” 

“One child was reported to have taken 14 tablets of the medication, causing extreme tachycardia and altered mental status,” the Academy added. 

The AAP continued, “In August, a 15-year-old girl in Oklahoma died after a diphenhydramine overdose.”

TikTok’s trend of distributing content encouraging its user base, which has a minimum age of 13 and is composed of almost 39 percent 18-to-24-year-olds according to Statista, to toy with the drug, does not appear to have abated after government warnings.

In September of 2021, Boston25 News reported a local police chief’s warning to parents on the Benadryl Challenge after it started to crop up in Arlington, a town of roughly 43,000 approximately 9 miles outside of Boston.

Police Chief Juliann Flaherty was paraphrased as stating she “wants parents to be aware as the FDA reports a growing number of kids across the country are ending up in the emergency room.”

Evolving tactics

Starting in 2023, the Benadryl Challenge began to be subtly promoted in new ways.

On Twitter, some accounts with bot-like characteristics started to once again promote the challenge, framing high doses of Benadryl as giving users the ability to “see things they couldn’t explain.”

The accounts would simultaneously link to YouTube videos with an AI voiceover claiming that overdosers were gifted with visions of spiders, ghoulish faces, fog, and catacomb walls.

Well-established dangers

Diphenhydramine overdoses resulting in death or being used as a suicide method are well established in medical literature.

As far back as 1982, Pittsburgh researchers from two poison centers studied the case of a 14-year-old girl who took 7,500 mg of the substance and “initially developed seizures following by cardiac conduction and hemodynamic compromise resulting in death despite life support measures.”

According to the Benadryl website, one tablet contains 25 mg of diphenhydramine, and for those aged 12+ is dosed at “1 to 2 tablets every 4 to 6 hours or as directed by a doctor.”

Some bot-like Twitter accounts advertise the availability of a bottle of generic diphenhydramine for under $10 that contains exactly 7,500 mg of the chemical.

In 1983, doctors from Hannover, Germany published the case of a 28-year-old male who overdosed on the drug, published in the journal Archives of Toxicology, “The patient went into hyperpyrexia and tachycardia and died from sudden cardiac arrest. Hemorrhagic pulmonary edema and renal shock were the most prominent pathomorphological findings,” the Abstract reads.

In 2020, medical examiners and physicians in Kansas published the case of a 22-year-old male who overtly committed suicide with diphenhydramine in the journal Toxicology Cases for the Clinical and Forensic Laboratory.

“A scene investigation showed multiple empty bottles of DPH and dextromethorphan, and numerous incoherent notes throughout his apartment,” the Abstract states.

Death dealing

Years before the TikTok Benadryl Challenge emerged, the Missouri Poison Center (MPC) published a March of 2016 article on Benadryl overdose treatment on its website, “Unfortunately, the diphenhydramine (DPH) found in Benadryl® can also be abused recreationally for delirium and hallucinosis, particularly by teenagers and young adults. It is cheap and easy to obtain.”

Even in 2016, the MPC added that using the drug as a suicide method was trending, “In 2013, there was a spike in diphenhydramine-related suicide exposures reported to the Missouri Poison Center (223 total). In subsequent years, the numbers declined by over half; however, there was a 42% increase in DPH suicide gestures between 2014 and 2015. The total for 2016 has nearly surpassed the total for 2015, and the year is not over yet.”

TikTok pushing suicide content is a sensitivity recently exposed in March by corporate accountability group Eko, which employed a series of bots operating on different devices and diverse geographical IP addresses to create TikTok accounts identifying as 13 years of age.

Eko found that TikTok’s algorithm quickly deployed “a network of harmful suicide, incel, and drug content easily accessible to a 13-year-old account, some of which can be found in as little as three clicks.”

The “For You” section of the app also “automatically served up highly viral and dangerous suicide content including videos with guns being loaded and text suggesting suicide, alongside comments listing users’ exact dates for their own self-harm or suicide,” the group stated.

Findings were similar to those of an investigation by The Wall Street Journal in July of 2021 that likewise used a series of bot accounts with different predefined interests undisclosed to TikTok to discover the algorithm quickly “rabbit holed” them in content promoting suicide, pornography, and depression in as little as 40 minutes of use.

WSJ posited that the algorithm was programed with this function in order to maximize screen-on time and user engagement.

A 2021 sales pitch published by parental control software development Qustodio analyzing “a full year of 2020 trends and insights on children’s screen time habits globally and across three major markets and five popular app categories” found that not only had TikTok outpaced Facebook and Instagram in global app usage among kids, but that the young U.S. demographic was spending an average of 87 minutes per day on the app.

87 minutes per day on TikTok not only stands in contrast to a comparatively modest 47 and 40 on Snapchat and Instagram, but represented almost a 100 percent increase from 2019 when kids were only using TikTok for 44 minutes per day.