Why teens attempt dangerous viral challenges

Joan Goodchild, Cyber Savvy Mom

Fun, silly or scary “challenges” are not a new concept for kids. Many parents today probably remember when we would challenge one another once upon a time -- whether it was heading into a dark room to chant “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror alone in the hope of conjuring up a ghostly image, or daring your best friend to call her crush, these were the kind of activities we did for a thrill.

Now, thanks to social media, the thrill of challenging others can go widespread quickly. So-called “viral” challenges go global like wildfire and before you know it, millions of kids a day are trying these challenges and taking video of it in order to garner likes, clicks and followers on sites like TikTok and Snapchat.

Unfortunately, many of them can be dangerous. In the last month, two viral challenges that can cause serious harm to kids have resulted in injuries around the world.

One challenge that cropped up recently on TikTok is called the Outlet Challenge. Kids plug a phone charger or other wall plug into an outlet, then leaving a tiny gap between the plug casing and wall, they drop a penny onto the metal prongs, causing a big spark from the coin’s contact with the live electrical current. 

Needless to say, the Outlet Challenge is dangerous. Fooling with electricity is a bad idea and can result in anything from a small painful zap to something more serious, like an injury or death. Earlier this year, incidents in Holden, Westford and Plymouth, prompted Massachusetts Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey to alert departments state-wide about the latest social media craze.

More recently, we heard about the Skull Breaker Challenge, which originated in Spain. In videos, two people kick the legs out from under a third person, who is then knocked to the ground. There have already been several injuries documented from the Skull Breaker, including one boy in Arizona who required stitches and was hospitalized after he landed on his head.

Other dangerous viral challenges in recent years have included the Tide Pod Challenge (eat a Tide Pod on camera) and the Choking/Pass Out Challenge (constrict your air supply to get high and then temporarily pass out on camera). In the case of the Choking Challenge, there are known deaths that resulted. There have been many other dangerous viral challenges, these are just a few examples.

Why do kids engage in these challenges? 

Unfortunately, social media is an immense influencer and the idea of “joining in the fun” – especially if it results in a video that will get attention – is too much for many to resist. But there is also the brain development process in teens to consider. Because the prefrontal cortex, which manages rational thought, doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25, teens are more impulsive and less likely to think through consequences before they act.

Here’s how to discuss viral challenges with kids.

It’s important for parents to first understand what challenges are out there, so make an effort to stay on top of it. Ask your kids about the latest challenges and consider having your own social media accounts so you can monitor not only what your kids are doing, but what other kids are up to as well.

Initiate conversation with your kids about what the latest challenges are all about and ask them what they think about them. If the challenge sounds dangerous, ask open-ended questions that will give them the opportunity to think through the consequences of taking part in such a challenge. 

Also, bear in mind that teens do need a way to experiment with their need for thrills and adventure. But there are plenty of ways you can offer them the chance to take some risks that are safer than playing with electricity. Take them rock-climbing or to the local amusement park to ride a big roller coaster. 

Remember, it’s not all bad. 

There are plenty of social media challenges that are not harmful – and actually contribute to great causes. The Ice Bucket Challenge is one example. The money raised for ALS research when people around the world were pouring buckets of ice on friends and families is still seen as one of the most successful social media fundraisers to date. Encourage your kids to take part in these fun and altruistic challenges. Take part in them too as a family activity.

Dangerous viral challenges will come and go. What’s most important is to arm your kids with the critical thinking skills they need to understand when it is smart to sit it out for the sake of safety. Remember: your best defense is always a conversation.

Do you have a question or a story suggestion for Cyber Savvy Mom? Contact me at joangoodchild@cybersavvymedia.com.