Indonesia is warning people against consuming liquid nitrogen after more than 20 children were harmed eating a street snack known as “dragon’s breath” that’s at the center of a dangerous new trend on short-form video app TikTok.
The children suffered burns to their skin, severe stomach pains and food poisoning after consuming the colorful candies, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Health, which is urging parents, teachers and local health authorities to be vigilant.
Afrianto Silalahi/NurPhoto/Zuma Press
"Dragon's breath" snacks at a night market in Pekanbaru, Indonesia, in 2019.
The candies are dipped in liquid nitrogen to create a vapor effect when eaten. They are popular with children, dozens of whom have uploaded videos to TikTok showing them blowing the fumes out of their mouths, noses and ears. One video showing the preparation of the snack by a street vendor has been viewed close to 10 million times.
Around 25 children have been hurt consuming the candies, including two who were hospitalized, said the ministry’s director general Maxi Rein Rondonuwu. No deaths have been reported.
Using liquid nitrogen in food preparation is not illegal. Top chefs often use the vapors to create theatrical effects when serving dishes. It is clear, colorless and odorless, and commonly used in medical settings and as an ingredient to freeze food.
However, when not used properly, it can be hazardous.
”Liquid nitrogen is not only dangerous when consumed, it can cause severe breathing difficulties from nitrogen fumes that are inhaled over a long time,” Maxi said.
The first case was reported in July 2022, according to the ministry, when a child from a village in the Ponorogo Regency in East Java suffered cold burns on his skin after eating the snack.
More cases were reported in November and December, including a 4-year-old boy who was admitted to hospital in the capital Jakarta with severe stomach pain.
“Schools must educate children in the community about the dangers of liquid nitrogen in food (to) prevent more cases of severe food poisoning,” Maxi said.
‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to eat it’
In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued safety alerts warning that serious injury could result from eating foods like ice cream, cereal or cocktails prepared with liquid nitrogen.
“Injuries have occurred from handling or eating products prepared by adding liquid nitrogen immediately before consumption, even after the liquid nitrogen has fully evaporated due to the extremely low temperature of the food,” the FDA said.
“This is a hazardous chemical compound,” said Clarence Yeo, a Singapore-based doctor. “It irritates the stomach and can cause burns in the mouth and esophagus. Children would be especially sensitive to (its effects) if it is eaten in large amounts.”
Yeo warned he “wouldn’t advise anyone to eat it.”
“You could end up in hospital and the worst case scenario could be organ damage,” he said.
"If you're reading this article, kudos to you for thinking about reevaluating social media," Agarwal said Trying to meet your goals is all about celebrating the small wins.
At the least, set small benchmarks for yourself like spending 10 minutes less on social media than the day before. The right amount of social media time is different for everyone since some people actually use these apps to brand and help market themselves. Find your own social media sweet spot, and remember, even if you scroll too much on social media one day, you can try and meet your goal tomorrow.
Another way to keep you on track is to share your goal with someone you trust. A friend or loved one who can kindly nudge you when they notice you've been on social media for awhile.
Scrolling through social media while hanging out with friends isn't uncommon nowadays, but when you think about how unengaged you are in those moments, it can put social media use into perspective.
Agarwal suggests the next time you're in a room with others at a family or friends gathering and you see yourself scrolling through social media instead of engaging with others, take a minute to physically remove yourself from the room and isolate in another room. Listen and feel how much you may be missing out on.
"What that does is it gives your brain a signal. If you force yourself to leave the room, you realize how much you're using that app and missing out on other people," Agarwal said. "It's a good physical reminder of being present in the moment and not on your on your phone and scrolling through social media."
Most smart phones nowadays track your screen-time and usage already. It's a good idea to figure out your average screen time per day so you have a benchmark that you can work on.
On iPhone, you can go into your "Screen Time" settings, which displays the amount of time you spend on each app and allows you to put timers on specific apps to limit how long you're on them. Android phones have similar features in the "Digital Wellbeing" settings. Additionally, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok offer the same features within the app settings themselves.
When you're at home and have free time, put your phone in a drawer or somewhere you can't see it. Oftentimes limiting the ability to quickly and easily pick up your phone is enough to keep you off of social media, said Agarwal. If your phone is what keeps your hands from fidgeting, try to have some objects around the house that relieve stress, like a stress ball, fidget toy or yarn and crochet hooks.
Hide your social media apps on your phone by placing the app on the second or third page of your home screen or bury the app inside an "app folder" with a bunch of others. When you're waiting in line or have a free five minutes, instead of grabbing your phone — take in the view, practice some breathing exercises or read a book.
Ever hear of "text neck?" It's the result of looking down at our phones when scrolling or texting, straining the neck muscles over a long period of time. Taking a break from social media helps relieve neck pain and gives your eyes a break from bright screens.
People may also be more connected than ever through social media, but a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that people who limit their time on social media experience less depression and feelings of loneliness.
Taking a break from social media will give you better sleep, too. Research suggests that nighttime use of social media is driven by FOMO (fear of missing out), and keeps people scrolling longer at night instead of going to sleep.
What is the reason that brought you onto social media? This is the question Agarwal said to ask yourself when trying to figure out if it's time to take a social media break. If you're not getting the same satisfaction from the reason you use social media, it may be time to look for alternatives.
If you joined social media to...
1. Find community: Look for clubs and groups in your neighborhood where you can meet and interact with others IRL (in real life).
2. Be inspired: Consume other forms of media like magazines, books, podcasts, movies or live events.
3. Buy and sell things: Try using other apps, like OfferUp or NextDoor, or visiting local events and marketplaces in person.
Two and a half hours — that's the average amount of time people spend on social media each day.
It may not sound like a lot, but that time can really add up — and at what cost? Social media has proven negative effects on mental health (especially for teens), self-image and for some is a huge time-waster.
University of Penn's Anish Agarwal, an emergency physician, researcher, and deputy director for the Center for Digital Health, said it's important to constantly be reevaluating the role social media plays in daily life.
The bottom line: taking a break from social media is healthy for you. Read on for guidance and tools to help you limit screen time on these apps.