Viral Online Challenges: From Fun to Fatal

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It’s important not to underestimate the pressures children go through to keep up with the latest online trends

Online challenges are the new ‘Viral’ now. It has started taking the social media by storm. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are filled with people trying out some of these popular challenges. Within the past few years, thanks to social media, these challenges have been trending globally. Online challenges, which starts with a ‘Wow’ can end with an Oh God!

These stunts range from harmless ones to horrifying and deadly acts. There are the funny ones (Mannequin Challenge); the helpful ones (ALS Ice Bucket Challenge); and the risky ones (Tide Pole challenge & Make Your Own Slime Challenge). But sometimes, challenges are downright dangerous, resulting in physical injury and possibly even death, for instance, the KiKi challenge, Blue whale challenge etc.

Why teenagers get suckered in social media dares:

Teenagers always indulge in silly and rather dangerous things but the advent of social media has brought in a new social dynamics to those trying to navigate the challenge of adolescence. For instance, it’s easier than ever for people to encourage strangers on the other side of the world to participate in the so-called ‘social media challenges’.

Immature brain development: Children’s brains are programmed to seek out new experiences to encourage learning, but unfortunately, teenagers don’t yet possess the ability to make rational choices. It’s not stupidity or a death wish but it is actually incomplete and immature brain development. The teenage brain is loaded with dopamine, so it is driven to seek out constant stimuli and reward. This means things that feel good and in general feel amazing to a teenager, are subject to execution (though with poor judgment) to achieve the sensation.

Peer pressure: Social media plays a critical role inconnecting teens with new friends, allowing them to meet new people, gain information and build relationships quickly. It makes them feel more connected and involved with what’s going on with their peers. They are curious to know what others are doing and they crave and seek out approval through likes and views. It’s a powerful tool that feeds and breeds popularity, whether real or perceived and a whole slew of potential self-esteem issues. They want to feel connected and there’s almost a sense of allegiance “If I emulate what others are doing, I’m fitting in.” There can be a sense of “peer acceptance” that compels teens to participate in such online challenges, even if those are exceedingly risky or harmful.

Constant exposure: Due to the prevalence of social media and its widespread adoption, kids get exposed to so many things and the adolescent brain is “hugely vulnerable” to the pitfalls of social media. Moreover, the algorithms work on social media sites like Facebook, if you’ve looked at a particular hashtag or type of content in the past it will continue to push similar content into your feed, further spreading the potentially harmful ideas, also known as “contagion risk”. Hence continuous exposure to more disturbing elements linked to such challenges, such as self-harm, can also take a toll.

Before venturing into any such online challenges, teenagers should understand….

People these days have photographic memories. Today’s challenge will be forgotten tomorrow. Except by you. You will always bear the scars for momentary popularity. Sadly, everyone else will move on to the next thing by the weekend. Ask yourself if this is a risk you will be proud of when you look back after some time? Moreover, every challenge is not necessarily popular. And there’s a reason for that. The “Wow factor” that people might have, doesn’t mean they are impressed in a positive way.

Why not take better risks to gain popularity? For instance, start a club at school, help someone who can’t repay you, ask out a guy or girl whom you perceive is out of your league. Challenge yourself to grow as a person rather than focus on convincing others you are worth their attention by participating in a fleeting craze. Use your adventurous spirit to leave a positive impact on others.

What can parents do?

Talk about it: With the rise of dangerous online challenges encouraging children to self-harm, it’s important to stay engaged with what they may be exposed to and have regular conversations about what they do online. Though we can’t always be with our teens and prevent them from danger, our words can really inspire them to stay safe, something like— “If you ever want to do an internet challenge, check with me first.”

Acknowledge peer pressure: It’s important not to underestimate the pressures children are under to keep up with all the latest trends online. Children will be desperate to engage online, coupled with a desire to take part in and overcome the fear of missing out. Of course, this is completely natural but parents can take responsibility to make sure they’re doing this safely.

Not everyone is doing it: Remind your child that what is seen online or in the media does not mean it is as popular as it seems.

Get them to think: Help your kid think through the challenges and whether they’re safe or have potential risks. Say, “Walk through each step and figure out where things could go wrong.”

Stay up to date: Discuss with kids about what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes they are more willing to talk about what’s going on with other kids than with themselves, so pose questions about friends, school and trends. Once the conversation is open, you can get a sense of what your kid thinks about the latest craze.

Be a role model: Some parents are the ones recording their kids and posting on media, so make sure your involvement sends the message you intend them to. Today it might be harmless but tomorrow it might be more dangerous.