Selfies to Blame for Lice Outbreaks in Teens, Doctor Says

Jennifer O'Neill

“The only way [teens] can transmit lice is touching their heads together, and that’s happening with all these photos,” according to Wisconsin doctor Sharon Rink. (Photo: Stocksy)

Parents scratching their heads over why more teens are getting lice these days may have an answer in high schoolers’ favorite pastime: snapping selfies.

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One pediatrician says she’s seeing an uptick in older kids with infestation compared with five years ago, and she attributes it to “social media lice.” Wisconsin physician Sharon Rink tells WBAY, “Teenagers don’t usually get lice because they’re not sharing hats and things like that. And lice can’t jump, so the only way they can transmit lice is touching their heads together, and that’s happening with all these photos.”

In Rink’s professional opinion, the frequency of group self snaps plays a factor. “People are doing ‘selfies’ like every day, as opposed to going to photo booths years and years ago,” she told WBAY. (Rink was not available to comment for Yahoo Parenting.) “So you’re probably having much more contact with other people’s heads.”

But lice expert Katie Shepherd, founder and CEO of the Shepherd Institute for Lice Solutions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research on, education about, and treatment of head lice, counters that the increase in teen infestations is actually due more to slack prevention in schools and failure of treatment products than selfies. “More and more schools are less proactive” about the problem, Shepherd tells Yahoo Parenting. “And more of the treatment products out there just aren’t working.”

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Selfies aren’t responsible because teens’ heads aren’t close together long enough for bugs to cross over, she insists about the problem, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affects 6 million to 12 million children 3 to 11 years of age in the U.S. each year. “Kids are hanging out together in close contact all the time anyway,” she notes, whether they’re taking photos of themselves or not.

“Lice can move 9 inches in a minute’s time,” Shepherd explains. “They don’t jump or fly, but they can make the transition from person to person quickly” crawling one by one or in harems.

“They’re transmitted via head-to-head contact,” Shepherd explains. “Kids curl up on couches together and sit head-to-head looking at videos on someone’s phone. That’s a lot more contact than you get taking a selfie.” There’s a greater chance of kids’ hair overlapping and bugs skittering between them when teens are sitting smushed closely in a car or side-by-side at the movies, she adds.

For that reason, the most effective way to avoid getting lice is for teens to keep their hair pulled back if they’re going to be in close proximity to others, she says. “If they go to a sleepover, girls should wear their hair in a bun and sleep on their own pillow,” she says. “And if you know that your friend has had lice, get your head properly checked.”

So if your teen often snuggles up close to friends — for any reason — consider spritzing mint-based products on his or her hair daily instead of prohibiting selfies, Shepherd advises. “Studies we’ve done with a variety of products show that mint-based formulas are about 90 percent effective in repelling lice.”

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