The Neknomination craze and our cultural attitude towards alcohol

neknomination picThe ‘neknomination’ craze recently swept across our social media feeds with individuals’ filming themselves downing an alcoholic drink, before nominating others to match them. Initially a mildly humorous viral challenge, it has come under strong criticism due to a number of deaths, with five people thought to have paid the ultimate price for trying to outdo their friends. What began as a relatively harmless form of camaraderie has quickly developed dangerous and extreme elements, with the most daring nominations swiftly going viral, granting the challenger their moment in the social media spotlight.  Increasingly dangerous and revolting concoctions have included pints of spirits, raw eggs and live animals.

The backlash has been somewhat predictable. There has been talk of banning videos from Facebook, and even charging those making lethal nominations with manslaughter charges. Such measures would probably do little to prevent extreme cases arising. Prohibition, on whatever scale, is rarely successful and indeed is often counterintuitive. The responsibility in deciding what one has to drink is surely to be left to the individual. Moreover the threat of legal penalty shouldn’t be necessary to prevent people from making potentially deadly nominations or from taking part in them, and punishing the sensible on account of the stupid isn’t something that usually works out very well.

While the prospect of taking part in the challenge doesn’t really appeal to me, it’s difficult to criticise someone for sharing drinks with friends, and in many cases neknomination amounts to a social media spin on this with a bit of banter thrown in for good measure. The problem is to be found not in the idea so much as in the willingness to carelessly cross the boundaries of personal safety and dignity in an attempt to prove something to others.

To look at neknominations more closely then is to see elements of something more deep-rooted than a dangerous internet craze appearing mystically out of the blue. There’s an aspect of the craze that reflects our cultural attitude towards alcohol.  I’m talking about something that goes far beyond a fondness for afternoons spent at the pubs or a few drink before the match. It’s an outlook amongst an increasing number of young people especially, that equates one’s inclination to have a good time and enjoy themselves with how much they’re willing to drink.

It’s a way of thinking that permeates our finest academic institutions as well as our toughest council estates. In fact one could argue that this notion has become a hallmark of higher education culture in the UK (and elsewhere). Drinking games are an integral aspect of university life, and with it the consumption of large quantities of alcohol have become normalized. In institutions across the country, people partake in evenings of intense drinking which can include knocking back double-figures worth of pints in very short spaces of time. A culture has emerged that places great value on one’s ability and willingness to drink.  The combination of social media trends, peer pressure, and this cultural attitude towards alcohol makes the extreme evolution of Neknomination somewhat unsurprising. It is a reflection of a wider societal issue.

Perhaps the craze says something about our collective perception of the dangers of alcohol too. While many are aware of the risks on a purely intellectual level, an appreciation of the very real dangers the substance poses is often lacking. We tend to limit our idea of who is susceptible and at risk to the unstable alcoholic rather than the average drinker up for a good time. And yet, taking it a step too far is a more likely mistake with alcohol than many other substances, legal or illegal. The lethal dose is around 10 times the effective dose (the amount it takes to become intoxicated), compared to 16 times for MDMA, and a remarkable 1000 plus for cannabis. Of course there really is no excuse for downing a pint of spirit, but a wider appreciation that alcohol can pose a lethal threat when used irresponsibly wouldn’t go amiss.

I think we can learn quite a bit from neknominate about the way in which we perceive alcohol use. The tragedies that have arisen from the extreme developments of the craze are a warning sign of the dangers that peer pressure can pose, especially in the context of today’s social media culture. Perhaps more importantly, it highlights the dangers of subscribing to an idea that how much you can drink is somehow related, in one way or another, to the quality of your character.

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