Why Are Social Media Challenges so Popular with Teens?

Are Social Media Challenges Dangerous for Teens?

Social media can be a blessing and a curse for parents and teens alike. It’s a great way to connect with people from all over the world, which is a boost for social skills and broadening horizons. But it can also be a gateway to disturbing and dangerous trends that can land kids in trouble. Teens may be drawn to destructive and damaging content which challenges them to do risky things such as ingest toxic substances or experiment with fire. Completion of a challenge is often filmed and posted online to seek a viral audience response.

Why are social media challenges so popular with teens and what can parents do? The draw toward social media challenges centers on a desire to fit in with peers, gain popularity, and sometimes even to defy parents. Parents can help prevent this obsession by paying more attention to their teens, monitoring online activity, and helping teens find healthier ways to be noticed.

As parents, it can be difficult to understand why our teens are so enticed by obviously risky activities like the Tide Pod Challenge. Even if your teen has already tried a questionable or objectionable social media challenge, it’s not too late to find ways to understand their motivations and to guide them toward more positive ways to feel good about themselves.

Teens’ Brains Aren’t Done Developing

It’s no secret that teens’ brains haven’t completed development, even if their bodies look mature. The human brain is not fully developed until the mid-twenties! That’s a long time to wait for kids to learn how to control their impulsiveness and make smarter choices.

Because their brains aren’t fully developed yet, teens are much more likely to participate in dangerous activities. They will act on impulse and instinct, both of which are wired for approval and acceptance by peers.

Peer Pressure Fuels More Social Media Challenges

Teen on computersPeer pressure is a powerful force that no child is immune to. While some kids may be able to resist for a while, there may come a point in nearly every teen’s life that they buckle under the pressure to follow the crowd. If we’re lucky, it will be for some silly thing that won’t cause any lasting harm.

Like wearing the “right” sneakers, for example. Or coloring their hair purple.

Unfortunately, with social media’s ever-present influence in our lives, teens are more likely to turn their attention to more dangerous pursuits to please their peers. Remember that their peer groups now number in the hundreds, maybe even the thousands.

Thank you, Facebook,  Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube…

That’s a lot more peer pressure to dodge than we had to deal with. We only had to resist local friends and classmates. Teens these days have to keep true to their values and common sense against a tsunami of competing wills, all seeking mass approval.

And as we’ve seen, it can get weird.

Social Media Challenges Go Beyond Experimentation

Some have downplayed the risk by painting the challenges as simple teen experimentation, a normal part of adolescence.

But this is more than that.

Samurai Dad recalls the regular challenges of his childhood neighborhood. As older teens, drinking challenges were common. His friends dared each other to jump off a cliff into a local lake. Another friend shoplifted some batteries on a dare and got caught. The challenges wound down after a while as the group got busy with the business of growing up.

There’s a difference between a friend group with established relationships egging each other on and a social media challenge with hundreds or thousands of anonymous peers urging others to try ever-escalating crazy or even harmful acts for entertainment.

So when kids are harming themselves or others, “experimentation” is no longer accurate. We’ve left the realm of curiosity when teens film themselves eating toxic levels of cinnamon or consuming inedible household products.

A Typical Life Cycle of Every Viral Social Media Challenge

Kids watch other teens take these challenges. They see the results with their own eyes. The challenge participant’s reaction is raw, and viewers react with shock and disbelief.  A typical teen viewer response may then morph into pained, empathetic laughter and admiration, along with thousands of other teens, resulting in a viral video.

Teen thinks: What comes next?  How can I explode this challenge (or something like it) into the next great viral video?  

So, what’s driving teens to keep repeating these same challenges and advancing to the next level?

Teens Thrive on the Social Reward of Challenges

Social attention lights up the reward centers in teens’ brains. This releases a pleasure chemical called dopamine. This, in a nutshell, is why teens keep coming back to social media challenges and upping the ante, even when they know the action is dangerous.  Simply stated; it’s the virality. What will it take to stir their audience into a feeding frenzy of liking, commenting and sharing?

And consider this:

Social Media Challenges Feed an Addiction

Boys on social mediaEveryone likes to be noticed and praised. Teens are especially vulnerable to this drive, which often pushes them to try some outrageous things to get the attention they crave. The grand prize on the internet is a long list of comments, increasing views, and a ton of “likes” on their photo or video. That validation, even from strangers, is often enough to keep teens searching for the next big thrill.

The addiction to attention from the masses is a strong pull for teens. Those kids who struggle with self-esteem issues and uncertainty about their place in the world are especially at risk. Yet, even young people who seem well-adjusted and happy on the outside can suffer internally from self-worth issues. These kids often reach out to social media for recognition.

Social media platforms are also designed to be addictive!

Everything a teen experiences in the platform is intentional:

  • Design of the buttons for “like”, “upvote”, “share”, ‘“follow”.
  • A software algorithm doles out the likes received on at predetermined intervals to keep teens’ attention focused on the screen.  
  • Stimulus-reward system makes it a “sticky” experience, which means more time engaged.  
  • More time on the platform = more exposure time to advertisements (ads are the main driver of cash flow for every social media platform).  
Instant Gratification Vs. Patience and Perseverance

In contrast to the instant dopamine “hit” they get when showered with mass approval, when a teen works hard and does well in school, they usually have to wait some time to see a grade. Each hard-won A or B reflects consistent, repeated effort. They’re not rewarded immediately.

But through our constant connectivity and our need-it-now culture, we’ve inadvertently trained kids to expect immediate rewards for their actions. We’ve done this through video games and early access to social media platforms. We’ve also fed the beast through busy schedules filled with events and afterschool clubs. Constant stimulus and reward cycles fill so much of our waking hours. Quiet reflective time engaged in activities like reading has become somewhat rare.

Kids used to be taught patience and perseverance to earn a coveted reward. Now, they’re taught by the media and peers that doing something crazy and posting it online will make them popular in mere minutes.

How can parents steer teens away from trying social media challenges?

Communication is Key

It’s no secret that most problems with teens can be improved with great communication. This works best when you start young and continue to talk to your kids throughout their lives. Yet, it’s not too late to start now. Be open and honest about your concerns. Show examples of teens whose lives have been changed because of participation in a harmful social media challenge.

Ask Questions

The best way to start these conversations is to ask your kids what challenges they’ve heard about. Give them the time and space to explain the challenges to you, and refrain from passing judgment. Let them talk so you can see how they feel about the challenges before you make any comments.

You can ask where they heard about the challenges, which friends are talking about them, and you can even ask if they know any kids who have tried them.

Again, don’t bring out the demands and the punishment during this conversation. Your goal is communication and trust. They need to feel safe talking to you, and you need to get information.

Talk About the Risks

Now that you have their attention, ask which risks and results they’ve considered. Ask them what they think could happen if they tried it. Is their answer realistic?

This can be tough questions for kids to answer, so you may want to break it down for them. Talk about each step of the challenge. Since they are likely more of an expert than you are in the process, ask your teen how it works.

Ask About Rewards

Sometimes, teens don’t consider their reasons for being interested in something dangerous. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask them to think about it. Ask them what they think the best reward is for doing the challenges.

Is it a pile of likes and comments? Ask, “What is the real worth of those things?” Are these tangible rewards, like good grades or a paycheck from a summer job? Are they rewards you can be proud of in five, ten, or twenty years, like a diploma or certificate of completion for a difficult class?

A big question that may get through to them is whether a week in the hospital is worth a few strangers saying “Cool!” on their video.

Ask About Their Friends

Teens are an enigma sometimes. One moment they can’t stop talking about themselves, and the next moment they won’t say a word. But many teens are much more willing to talk about their friends, classmates, or people they’ve met online. So, leverage that to your advantage. Ask about their friends.

What are they up to? Have they done anything interesting lately? Have any of your teen’s friends tried any of the social media challenges?

If you don’t want to be quite so blatant, you can ask about recent trends at school. Some teens find it funny to think of their parents as old and out of touch. Use that! Tell them what things were like when you were a teen, then let them fill you in on current trends.

Be Active Where They Are

Social media tilesOne of the best ways to keep up to date with social media challenges and other dangerous trends follow your teens and connect to them where they are. If they love Youtube, check out the content on the channels they’re following. If they have their own channel, follow them.  If they love Instagram, go there, too. Be sure to be on their friends list on every platform they like to spend time. Even if you never interact with them, you can keep an eye on what’s happening there.

Some teens will be resistant to you joining them on social media. Especially with younger teens, you can make it a requirement for their own membership on the platform.  

In our situation, we pay for the devices and service.  All social media account user IDs and passwords are shared with us as a condition of their access to a device. This may work for you because you can take the privilege of the device or service away. While you don’t want to default to this option, it is there in case your teen is fighting you.

And, of course, if your teen is making a big stink about it, there could be something they’re trying to hide from you. That’s even more reason you need to get involved.

Set an Online Access Curfew

Another way to keep track of the type of media that your teen is exposed is to set a media curfew. Some parents also track the online interactions of their teens with monitoring apps. Whatever combination of monitoring apps and strategies you decide to use in your family, remember that it will never replace ongoing communication with your kid.


How to Manage My Teen’s Online Access: Setting a Curfew

How to Talk to Your Teen So You Both Win


As frightening as the threat of harm through social challenges is, you can take steps right now to help prevent your own teens from falling prey to these dangerous activities. Open the lines of communication, connect with your teens, and talk frankly about the risks and results.

Related Questions

What are the dangers of social media challenges? Many social media challenges can cause permanent bodily harm such as burns from fire or ice, respiratory issues from inhaling dangerous compounds, and scarring from a number of sources. There is also a risk of poisoning and death in many challenges.

Why are internet challenges popular? People like to be noticed, and internet challenges provide instant attention. Doing something dangerous online is popular because it provides participants with instant gratification on a wider scale than they can get locally.


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