“Whoever falls asleep last wins.” In recent weeks, the Mexican press has been full of warnings about a dangerous new TikTok trend: the “clonazepam challenge,” named after the drug it allegedly involves. Mexican media and authorities have reported a spike in clonazepam abuse cases among middle and high school students, but there’s little to no evidence that this viral trend ever existed at all.
Rest of World found no videos of the supposedly viral challenge. We spoke to four parents, a TikTok spokesperson, and the Mexico City police, none of whom were able to provide evidence of the trend. This hasn’t stopped concern surrounding the clonazepam challenge from spreading, nor has it prevented local police departments from increasing their surveillance of clonazepam-related content online, which they claim has led to arrests.
The challenge, supposedly, involves users recording themselves as they take unsupervised doses of clonazepam, a medication commonly used to treat seizures and panic disorders. It is commonly known as Klonopin in the U.S. or Rivotril in Mexico. Rafael Gual, general director of Mexico’s National Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry (Canifarma), told Rest of World the drug is not for recreational purposes. As one of the side effects of clonazepam is drowsiness, the challenge poses that whoever resists its effects the longest wins.
Elías Viveros, a middle school student from the state of Puebla, told Rest of World he’d heard of the challenge but had never seen a video of someone actually doing it. “I see people doing stupid things on TikTok, but not that stupid,” he said. Nobody Rest of World spoke to said they’d seen a video of the challenge, but many parents still expressed a heightened concern around clonazepam because the Mexican government had issued a warning about it.
This increased worry over an allegedly widespread trend has concerned security experts like Lisa María Sánchez Ortega, general director of México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, a nonprofit organization that analyzes public security policies. She told Rest of World that Mexican law enforcement was reacting to the collective panic by increasing surveillance on clonazepam — a perfectly legal medication — with more zeal than other, illegal substances.
The first mention of a viral challenge associated with clonazepam use in Mexico came about in March 2022. It was only in November that the trend was said to be happening on TikTok. Naomi Kambayashi, the mother of a 15-year-old student in Mexico City, told Rest of World she started hearing about the challenge in mid-December. She said by late January 2023, the rumor had become a popular topic of conversation in WhatsApp groups with other parents.
On January 24, the Mexico City cyber police issued a statement alerting parents and school authorities that they had “identified social media users that invite children and teenagers to consume clonazepam in uncontrolled doses.”
Neither the cyber police’s public statement nor Brenda Mondragón Carrillo, a spokesperson of Mexico City’s Citizen Security Secretariat, were able to provide Rest of World with a link to any video related to the allegedly viral trend.
“People seem to know about this supposed clonazepam challenge outside of TikTok but it has never been a trend on the platform,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement to Rest of World. “We haven’t found any evidence of its existence on the platform.”
Reports also mentioned that the police had claimed to have erased 96% of all clonazepam challenge-related videos on TikTok. According to the TikTok spokesperson, these numbers match a content cleanse carried out by the platform of its own volition back in the third quarter of 2022, where videos referring to dangerous challenges had been “proactively eliminated.” The spokesperson further told Rest of World that none of the erased videos had been related to the clonazepam challenge. “TikTok has not received any report of videos or content that promote or are related to the clonazepam challenge,” they said.
On January 31, the Mexico City police arrested individuals they had previously detained on suspicions of selling clonazepam illegally, according to local reports. The police were quoted as attributing the arrests to heightened surveillance of clonazepam-related content.
Illegal distribution of the drug seems unlikely, said Gual. “It’s very plausible [these kids] got the drug from their own homes,” he said. Data from Prescrypto, a company that helps doctors manage digital prescriptions, shows a 60% increase in clonazepam prescriptions from March 2022 to January 2023. “Drug-related news tends to get magnified really quickly, but it’s a delicate matter because it might end up validating trumped-up drug-related persecution policies,” said Sánchez Ortega. “It should put educational and health authorities on alert, not the security forces.”