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The Cinnamon Challenge and Why Schools Need to Know Pop Culture

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Years ago, someone, somewhere, had the idea to take a spoon, fill it with ground cinnamon, and shovel that cinnamon into his mouth. This becomes the closest anyone can reasonably get to fulfilling the expression "hacking up a lung."

Long after it started, the Cinnamon Challenge endures. For those who understand food science, or who have seen the challenge personally, they know the conclusion: Hacking, coughing, and sputtering, with cinnamon going everywhere.

Here's a visual illustration, using the most popular version off YouTube:

The Cinnamon Challenge is a mainstay among youthful dares. As the old saying goes, it's always fun until someone puts out an eye. Or a lung. Which is possible, as a paper published today for the May issue of Pediatrics outlines. Researchers examined the extent to which the challenge has grown, as well as the damage cinnamon can cause.

"The Cinnamon Challenge is a behavioral phenomenon, a popular dare fueled by peer pressure that, along with competition, often instigates risk-taking behaviors among adolescents," the paper says.

One of the problems with the Cinnamon Challenge is that cinnamon—sweet, beguiling, bread-enhancing cinnamon—doesn't have a reputation for consumption problems in the way that jalapeños might. So now's a good time to learn: Cinnamon comes from tree bark. It's high in cellulose and resistant to biodegrading, meaning that if it's absorbed into, say, the lungs, it stays there for some time and can act as an irritant, at least so far as studies with mice have shown; no studies have been done on humans. (Although not for a lack of test subjects, it seems.)

There are no major benefits to the Cinnamon Challenge, depending on the value placed on Internet fame. Yet according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, in 2012, poison centers received 222 reports of cinnamon abuse in the United States.

The paper notes that interest in the challenge is only growing, according to YouTube viewing records. And of course it is. The AAPCC website is actually a testament to the lovably twisted psychology of teenagers, in that they need to be warned about everything. The fascinating part of the Cinnamon Challenge study is that, as the challenge grows in popularity—that video up top has been viewed over 29 million times—teenagers still want to do it. A limited September 2012 study showed that, where teens sense ambiguity in the consequences of potential actions, they are likelier to take risks. (Most people would chalk that up to a sense of teenage immortality.) In the Cinnamon Challenge, perhaps, challengers see what happens, and still want to try, because they go into it with the belief that they might know what other people did wrong. Ambiguity, compounded by peer pressure, can make for a motivating environment.

The paper's authors recommend that schools discuss the challenge with students, but really, it's not just the Cinnamon Challenge. At the rate that Internet memes and trends spread, there's always something to warn against or to help students understand.

The paper calls the challenge a "behavioral phenomenon," but is it really? Think of all the Internet trends and the trouble they cause. Planking, for instance, where people lie prone in strange places. Or the Harlem Shake, which has gotten several students suspended for bad behavior. Or licking toad.

It's not like biology teachers have to model the Cinnamon Challenge, but they can explain it. Just like a music or history teacher can explain the roots of the Harlem Shake. Or what have you. Schools can provide context better than the average YouTube video, but it means keeping on top of a quick-moving culture. Because teenagers certainly are.

Full disclosure: The author once participated in the Cinnamon Challenge. He regrets the error.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter at @Rulz4engagement.

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