“This is how you drink.”
That's what Bradley Eames says in the YouTube video, as he downs two pints of gin in less than a minute – and brags that he's going to show his friends “who's boss.”
Almost immediately, he complained he felt ill. And four days later, Eames, 20, was found dead in his Nottingham, England home.
He's considered just one victim of “NekNomination,” an Internet drinking game that has reportedly claimed the lives of five men under 30 in the United Kingdom – and has some experts worried it will spread to the U.S. The premise: Teens and 20-somethings film themselves downing a large quantity of alcohol (“necking”) and post the video on social media, be it Facebook or YouTube. Then they nominate a friend to outdo them – drinking alcohol from a toilet, for example, or mixing it with a goldfish or dead mouse.
The ultimatum: “You have 24 hours. Get it done.”
Some of the drinkers do back flips while drunk; one man strapped a camera to himself as he jumped off a 90-foot bridge. If the friend doesn't comply, he or she is ridiculed on social sites.
“This thing has spread like wildfire, and it's been fueled by social media across the globe,” says Marty Ferrero, senior clinical director of adult services at Caron Treatment Centers, which offer rehabilitation services for drug and alcohol addiction. “It's morphed into people making these outrageous dares – maybe because they feel invincible or because they're looking for their 15 minutes of fame and bragging rights – which can ultimately cost them their lives.”
Indeed, experts say NekNomination shines a light on the dangers of binge-drinking and acute alcohol poisoning. Exactly how much alcohol is too much depends on factors such as your age, weight, height and body's ability to process the alcohol. Symptoms include repeated vomiting, becoming unconscious or semiconscious, breathing slowly, confusion, blue-tinged skin and low body temperature.
“Most young people don't realize how dangerous binge-drinking is,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who adds that he's “appalled” by the trend. He points out that four times the legal limit of alcohol – a blood alcohol content of 0.08 – is equivalent to a lethal dose. “If you drink that much, you can kill yourself fairly easily,” he says, warning that the situation becomes even more deadly when sleeping pills or pain medicine, for example, are added to the mix. Such a concoction could slow down breathing – plus, alcohol intensifies medication side effects, leading to sleepiness, drowsiness and lightheadedness.
Though ideally “games” like NekNomination wouldn't catch on, the reality is that they do, experts say. And perhaps nothing is more critical than knowing how to help a friend who's overdone it. Most important: Don't wait for warning signs to appear. “The thing that can save their life is getting them to a hospital as fast as possible,” Koob says. “You don't want to screw around waiting for it to wear off. It's only going to get worse.” Ferrero seconds the sentiment – and says if you're worried your friend will be angry with you or embarrassed, don't be. His or her life is more important. “This is nothing to fool around with,” he says.
If a friend begins vomiting, try to keep that person sitting up; if he or she must lie down, it's important his or her mouth and airway are clear. Don't leave your friend alone. And if he loses consciousness, keep him on his side, make sure he's breathing, loosen tight clothing that could restrict breathing and immediately call an ambulance – without leaving his side.
Exactly how many people are engaging in NekNomination is unclear, but the statistics on binge-drinking, particularly in college, paint a scary picture. “Thousands of young people end up with alcohol poisoning and die,” Ferrero says. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,825 U.S. college students ages 18 to 24 die of alcohol-related unintentional injuries each year. The worrisome stats help explain why one organization in France, the National Association for Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction, is pushing to punish those who share NekNomination videos with up to two years in jail.
Meanwhile, Koob points to cigarettes to highlight the kind of awareness that needs to surround binge-drinking. Over the past 40 years, there's been an evolution in how Americans view cigarettes – we now have a significant understanding of the health risks of lighting up. The current challenge is making drinkers understand that while enjoying a glass of wine is one thing, drinking in excess is quite another. What's going to make that happen, Koob says, is if “young people understand the dangers and communicate them to other people.”
Of course, parents play a role, too. Mom and dad, don't assume your cautionary words won't reach your kids. Ferrero stresses that if open, honest conversations about the dangers of binge-drinking start early, they can actually register. “We're talking about 10, 13, 16 year olds taking up this 'game,' which is just unfathomable,” he says. “And so the earlier the better. We've found that even though parents may feel like it's falling on deaf ears, most kids really do take heart and pay attention.”