The 'Eyeball Licking' Fad and other Media Scares

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A weird news story circulated in June about a trend among Japanese schoolchildren licking each other’s eyeballs and supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Many news outlets covered the story as a grave risk; CBS News, for example, warned that this “Japanese ‘eyeball licking’ trend carries blindness risk.”

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Not so fast, says Mark Schreiber, an American journalist living in Japan and writer for The Japan Times. In an article for the “Number 1 Shimbum” publication, Schreiber investigated the story and traced it to an “article in Japanese titled “Shogakusei ni gankyuname hentai purei ga dairyuukou” (“The perverted play of eyeball-licking is a hit among primary schoolers”), which appeared on Friday, June 7 on Bucchi News, a site for subculture enthusiasts.

The story’s sole informant was “Y,” an anonymous teacher at a primary school in Tokyo, who revealed how he had traced an epidemic of pink eye at his school to “hentai (perverted) play” in the form of rampant eyeball licking among students. Notably lacking in attribution and details, the story had all the trappings of an urban legend.

Who was this anonymous teacher in this unknown school and how did he verify that kids were spreading disease by licking each other’s eyeballs for chaste sexual kicks? If the trend was sweeping across Japan, where were the hundreds or thousand of other schoolteachers reporting this disturbing public health threat?

It doesn’t matter, because it was too good a story not to pass along, facts be damned. It’s tempting to suggest that the tabloids were to blame, but as Schreiber wryly notes, “A UK-based medical bulletin board, Medical News Today, even beat out ABC News by one day, running the alarming story under the title “Eyeball Licking (Oculolinctus) Can Be Dangerous, Doctors Warn.” The site’s readers, including medical professionals, rated the story an average of 4.5 stars out of 5.”

ANALYSIS: What Keeps Conspiracy Theories Alive?

But what about the epidemic of tongue-induced pink eye that threatened the health of Japanese schoolchildren everywhere? If eyeball licking wasn’t the cause, what was?

Schreiber found no trace of it: “I contacted three Japanese professional organizations, including two opthamological associations and an organization of school clinicians. Queries were also sent to a professor of nursing at a national university and a Yokohama-based ophthalmologist. None of them had the faintest idea of what I was talking about. None knew anything about the rampant spread of disease.”

An Irresistible and Creepy Mix

It’s easy to see why the story spread so far despite its dubious premise and utter lack of hard journalistic evidence. After all, the subject is eyeball licking! How weird and freaky is that? If there was ever a subject created specifically to fit the “weird news” category, it’s eyeball licking. Just typing those words is creepy.

Another factor is a 24-hour news cycle that emphasizes what’s new and rarely offers follow-up reporting on such topics. Countless UFO, ghost and Bigfoot sightings and photographs make a big splash in the news when they first appear but then soon fade away. When and if the report is finally debunked, it rarely makes the news — partly because for many people a rational explanation is less interesting than the original, mystery-mongering story, and partly because some reporters may not want to admit they were duped in the first place.

Another important reason the story got so much play is that it fits nicely into deep, universal and preexisting concerns about the crazy, dangerous things that kids are up to. It’s no accident that the story is about this bizarre practice among schoolchildren specifically. These weren’t prisoners or farm workers, but impressionable, wayward children experimenting with some bizarre sexual fetish that even Marquis de Sade would have reservations about.

Kids Today

Worrying about “kids today” is a time-honored pastime among parents and older generations. In the 1990s, the public was told to brace themselves for fires set by impressionable kids who saw their favorite cartoon characters, Beavis and Butthead, committing arson.

Then there were the hordes of teens who were going to injure or kill themselves mimicking pro-wrestling moves they saw on TV. When that dangerous fad didn’t materialize, the same concern appeared in other forms.

This case has aspects of what sociologists call a moral panic — a concern, often exaggerated, about some perceived threat to life, health or social order.

ANALYSIS: Anatomy of a Fad: Aboard the Silly Bandz Wagon

Every year or two a story circulates widely in the news about some dangerous new trend that parents and teachers need to be aware of, some hidden threat to the health and safety of children based on some strange behavior. Though verified facts and hard numbers are rarely offered in these stories, they are often framed as hidden, emerging fads that are increasing with alarming frequency.

In 2009 experts worried that kids were choking themselves — not to feel light-headed, but instead for sexual pleasure.

According to one news report, “More children and teens than pediatricians realize could be participating in a dangerous, potentially fatal sex act known as autoerotic asphyxiation.”

The following year there was widespread parental concern over “sack tapping,” another dangerous (and, some claim, potentially fatal) childhood game in which boys slap or punch each others’ testicles.

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Of course kids do sometimes choke themselves (and each other) and they do sometimes let themselves be kicked or punched in uncomfortable places — just as kids have exchanged smacks, punches and rope burns for ages. But did any schoolkids really ever lick each other’s eyeballs? There’s no evidence it’s true, though it’s possible that some kids somewhere tried it, either intentionally or accidentally, and a teacher saw it and assumed it was a new fad.

Ironically, the story was so widely reported might have caused a few people to try it, in an act folklorists refer to as “ostension.” It’s the re-enacting of folklore for entertainment and fun, and is the basis for many ghost-hunting expeditions.

This does not mean, of course, that a handful of children may not have engaged in these strange behaviors and been harmed by them. But eyeball licking is, fortunately, one threat that parents can cross off their list.

IMAGE: A member of the Japanese performance group ‘Medaman-Medaman’ uses a magnifying glass while wearing a large eyeball at the Roppongi Hills shopping mall in Tokyo.