The internet has served as a tool to make us feel more interconnected. Distances are shorter, information is more accessible, knowledge is no longer a privilege, and social life as we knew it, has become virtual. In this sense, social networks have become the predilect way how we interact socially online.
However, these social networks not only bring with them positive issues but also bring dangers and challenges that constantly demand our digital skills and critical thinking. An example of this is the viral trends and challenges that are multiplied by users in applications such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
What are the challenges?
Jessica Ortega, a member of the Cyberpsychology Research Group of UNIR defines them as actions that users propose such as dances, jokes, and challenges, among others, which they record for others to see and reproduce. Depending on the interest they arouse, they tend to become viral due to the massive diffusion of the Internet and the tendency of human beings to imitate the behavior of others, especially in adolescence.
There are solidarity challenges that promote good causes, help others or encourage good behavior. Neckerchief Challenge, proposed by the Aladina Foundation, in which different users wear a scarf on their heads to raise awareness of childhood cancer and, others such as the "Ice Bucket Challenge", which tried to raise awareness of the disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There are also harmless challenges that using water bottles to play.
Most of these challenges are harmless, but over time some have emerged that could be dangerous for the physical and psychological integrity of people, many of them minors age. "Adolescence is a stage of seeking sensations, meeting new people, and viral challenges allow you to do both. At this stage, friends are the most important thing and family takes a back seat," explains Jessica. Young people record challenges in order to be valued by their group of friends, not to feel excluded, and for popularity. Nowadays, popularity is measured in likes, followers, and comments.
A viral challenge can be proposed by a group of friends, it also happens that children can follow challenges made by other users or celebrities they see on the Internet. Indeed, challenges supported by influencers are usually the most viral since they are massively followed by a large number of people.
What are the dangerous challenges?
Below, you will find a list of some of the most dangerous challenges that have been promoted on social networks and that resulted in hundreds of deaths, injuries, and worried parents around the world. There is no limited geographic space where these challenges take place, considering the scope and replication capacity of the internet, there are many places in the world where these challenges have been carried out.
These challenges will be shared with the exclusive objective of informing, raising awareness, and alarming parents, but also minors who consume content related to these challenges.
"Tide Pod Challenge": It involves biting a detergent capsule of any brand and spitting or ingesting its contents. This action puts the health of participants at risk.
“48 hours”: consists of disappearing without a trace for two days, without giving prior notice to any family member or friend to appear on missing people search lists.
“The Shell”: users eat all kinds of food with shells, such as eggs, and candies with the wrapper, among others, with the risk of obstruction and suffocation.
"Benadryl challenge": consists of ingesting more than a dozen Benadryl pills, which can have side effects such as hallucinations, and once the effects arise, they share the experience through videos.
"Blue Whale": this has been one of the viral games that has caused the most commotion and social alarm. The administrators give a series of tasks to be completed by the players, a total of 50 of which include cutting their bodies and the last phase is suicide.
"Condom Snorting": consists of inhaling condoms and pulling them out through the mouth, something that can cause asphyxiation. The challenge also consists of filling a condom with water and dropping it on someone's head in order to get it inside, thus also risking suffocation.
“Momo”: The game starts with messages with administrators, in which "Momo" sets challenges to whoever dares to contact her, and under threats of a supposed curse forces the participants to fulfill them. The last challenge is to end her own life and pass the game to another person.
"The devil's challenge": consists of scratching the back of another child's hand while reciting the letters of the alphabet and saying a word beginning with each of them. Sometimes scissors and knives are used and they open wounds.
"No lacking challenge": which consists of pulling out a gun and pretending to shoot a classmate. The latter has to take out his gun and aim it at him, without pulling the trigger. Several accidents were recorded with this dangerous challenge.
“Blackout”: To fulfill this challenge, people tie an object around their neck to avoid breathing. Once breathing is blocked, the goal is to faint, due to lack of air.
“Skull-breaker challenge”: consists of making an individual jump so once he is in the air, a trip is placed on him, which cause the individual to lose balance and fall, generally on his back or head.
“Train surfing": consists of climbing on top of a moving train while recording a video for social networks.
"Bird Box challenge": which consists of going outside and performing everyday tasks while blindfolded. Some cases were so extreme that the danger was not only for the protagonist of the challenge but also for the rest of the passers-by.
"Fire challenge": this consisted of spraying a flammable liquid on a part of the body and then setting oneself on fire to see how long the person could handle it.
“Space Monkey Challenge" or "Choking Game": choking with your hands or an object to feel pleasure.
Irene Montiel, professor at the UOC's Faculty of Law and Political Science and researcher with the VICRIM group, points out that "participating in these challenges does not come free. The bill these young people have to pay is not low. From the consequences derived from the challenge itself, such as the self-harm they inflict on themselves with the blue whale challenge, which could lead to suicide, to even death with the Benadryl challenge".
As the teacher points out, there are inevitable consequences derived from the dissemination of images with the intention of humiliating or making fun of the protagonist or victim. Since "these images last over time and it is difficult to eliminate them, if they cause discomfort or embarrassment, they can cause problems of self-esteem, anxiety or depression. The loss of control over them can cause great frustration and anxiety, as well as the loss of job opportunities, for example".
Why are young people so vulnerable to them?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking, the prefrontal cortex, does not fully develop until around age 25. For this reason, adolescents are naturally more impulsive and tend to act before thinking about the consequences. Professor Jessica Ortega warns that young people "cannot think about risks. The desire to experience new sensations leads them to act impulsively without thinking about the consequences. [They find a great incentive in] (...) being popular and having many 'likes' even if something bad happens (...)".
The idea of overcoming a challenge, the expectation of being accepted by others, or the possibility of emulating the "bravery" of someone famous, added to the fact that all this happens in a public environment, according to experts, constitutes the ideal breeding ground for young people to jump "with their eyes closed" into the viral challenges that circulate on social networks, especially on TikTok and Instagram.
Research conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that adolescents do not take the time to consider whether laundry detergent is a poison that could burn their throats if ingested, or whether inappropriate use of medications such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can cause serious heart problems, seizures or coma. They focus on the fact that someone in their class did it and got hundreds of likes and comments on a certain digital platform.
Along the same lines, Professor Montiel believes that preadolescents and adolescents "naturally present difficulties in controlling their impulses and are constantly seeking immediate satisfaction, pleasure, social approval from their peers and feeling part of the group. In addition, they are continually testing their limits and those around them, as part of the construction of their identity and the discovery of their potential. Added to this, they are the quintessential users of social networks such as TikTok or Instagram, where challenge videos spread quickly among thousands of people, some of them celebrities."
Networks are not harmful; some studies confirm their positive effect on education. "There are certain challenges that consist of solving mathematical problems or answering geography or general culture questions... In the end, it all depends on how you use it." Not all teenagers are attracted to these digital challenges. According to Montiel, "the young people most likely to participate in viral challenges are those who have the greatest need to be accepted, valued or recognized by their peers, but each challenge has its particular target".
How to prevent it?
We must highlight the fact that we are talking about minors and, that the supervision of how preadolescents use social networks, including challenges, is the responsibility of their parents. The main problem is, according to Montiel, "the lack of knowledge on the parents’ side since they don’t know the existence of these challenges, their real or potential consequences and, in general, about the risks that social networks can pose for young people".
We may focus on self-care so that users do not risk their integrity in search of popularity, and also the development of skills and concepts, to distinguish between the reasonable and the unreasonable. This will also help them to understand that the Internet and the virtual world are as real as the physical world.
It is important that children know how to differentiate between harmless challenges and dangerous challenges. A challenge can be done when it serves to have fun, raises awareness about a good cause, does not harm or offend anyone, promotes people to get along with each other, or motivates another person to improve or motivate him/herself.
It is necessary to work on critical thinking and help them to think before they act. Together with self-control, it is a great learning that needs to be encouraged and can help them in other areas of their lives. Hive Mind free self-paced course on Media Literacy Online can be a great tool for this purpose:
We should help them to generate thinking routines that help them understand if they should participate in a challenge. The idea is to work on what, how, when, with whom it is done and why. The questions we should ask the child to internalize and answer are: what is the challenge and what should be done, is it dangerous for me or others, can I make someone feel bad, are we all going to have a good time, will I regret having done it in a while? Is it going to affect me in doing another important task, do I have to break, dirty or damage anything, is it appropriate for this person to go out (e.g. my little 5-year-old brother or someone who has not been invited), am I doing the challenge for pleasure or because I feel I am obliged to?
1. Nuevecuatrouno. Desaparecer 48 horas o comerse una cáscara: retos peligrosos
2. Revista Semana. Los retos virales peligrosos que están poniendo en peligro a los adolescentes
3. Radio Nacional. Retos virales: ¿qué tan peligrosos son?
4. Periódico el Tiempo. Los peligros de los retos virales en internet
5. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. Un 8% de los adolescentes en España afirma haber realizado un reto viral peligroso
Background illustration: Photo by Allan Mas from Pexels / Pexels license