A 12-year-old boy in Colorado died this month after participating in a challenge on TikTok where people choke themselves until they become unconscious. Joshua Haileyesus was described as “intelligent, funny, caring, and gifted,” on the GoFundMe page set up for his family.
Internet challenges have exploded on social media, ranging from charitable to benign to dangerous to lethal. Some are well-intentioned and lightly amusing, others pose health risks.
In 2014 the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars for ALS research. The InMyFeelings dance challenge kept us entertained in the summer of 2018. But the Benadryl challenge, which emerged in 2020, encouraged people to take an excessive amount of the medication in an attempt to hallucinate. The coronavirus challenge encouraged people to lick surfaces in public. The Blackout challenge, which killed Haileyesus, also killed a 10-year-old girl in Italy earlier this year.
Social media challenges are especially attractive to adolescents, who look to their peers for cues about what’s cool, crave positive reinforcement from their friends and social networks, and are more prone to risk-taking behaviors, particularly when they know they’re being observed by those whose approval they covet.
“Kids are biologically built to become much more susceptible to peers in adolescence, and social media has magnified those peer influence processes to be much, much more dangerous than they were before,” said Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association and author of “Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.”
Teens may find these challenges entertaining and at times thrilling, especially when they don’t see people getting hurt, which increases their likelihood of participating. Teens are already less skilled than adults at weighing risk, and when their peers are lauded – through likes and comments – for engaging in risk-taking behavior, it can be disinhibiting.
A 2016 study in the journal “Psychological Science” found adolescents were more likely to like popular photos than those with few likes, a finding that held true both for neutral photos and those depicting risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking. Viewing photos with many likes was connected to greater activity in parts of the brain associated with imitation.
“These kids are being influenced at a level that’s beyond their conscious awareness,” Prinstein said.
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SOURCE: USA TODAY, Alia E. Dastagir