Parents’ guide to viral social media challenges
There are good reasons why teens and preteens love the viral challenges that range from the altruistic to risky. Here’s how to talk with your teen about the risks and rewards.
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There’s nothing new about teens challenging each other to do silly, sometimes dangerous things. Gen Xers surfed on top of friends’ cars while they raced down the road. Boomers played chicken in their hot rods, driving toward a head-on collision and waiting for one of them to swerve first.
Technology may have changed, but teens haven’t. They’re still challenging each other to take part in dangerous stunts, but today the challenges come from social media as well as friends, and social media makes it easy to share the outcome with a worldwide audience. It’s vital for parents to know about these challenges, their risks and the role played by social media.
What is a social media challenge?
Social media challenges are when someone does something that may be funny, shocking or risky, then shares a recording on social media along with a challenge for others to do the same thing. Some challenges are driven by a celebrity or influencer, or may be part of a sponsored marketing campaign. But most are spontaneous, and a few end up getting attention and going viral.
The biggest, most viral social media challenges usually include hashtags of certain words or phrases so that similar content is easier to find and share. You may have heard of the #bottleflipchallenge, #plankchallenge, #fliptheswitch, or #mannequinchallenge. Even if you aren’t familiar with these popular internet challenges, your teen probably is.
What’s the appeal of these challenges?
It’s simple: Kids love attention. The excitement of racking up likes and follows on social media is undeniable, even for adults. So it’s understandable that teens are motivated to participate in social media challenges to connect and impress friends and a wider audience.
The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. That means teens are more likely than adults to act on their impulses and engage in activities that might involve potential risks. The urge to participate in risky behavior can often outweigh rational thought about the consequences, especially when “everyone else is doing it.” On the other hand, risk-taking behavior in teens plays a vital role in giving them the courage to transition into early adulthood and leave home.
Not all internet challenges are created equal.
Not every social media challenge is dangerous—and some have positive outcomes. The 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge encouraged people to record themselves getting drenched with buckets of ice water in order to boost awareness of the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It was responsible for inspiring viewers to donate more than $115 million to the ALS Association. The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most successful internet challenges to date, and there are dozens of others going on at any given time with the intention of building community and fostering positivity in a healthy and safe way.
Some social media challenges, however, miss the mark when it comes to health and safety.
In 2017, a Twitter user tweeted a picture of chicken cooking in NyQuil as a joke. But the joke caught on, and by 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) issued a warning that people should stop doing it. In 2020, the Benadryl Challenge encouraged people to take large quantities of the over-the-counter allergy drug to induce hallucinations. The USDA had to issue a statement about the risks of taking high doses of Benadryl.
Then there was the Milk Crate Challenge of 2021, which asked people to stack milk crates into a pyramid and try to climb to the top. Doctors in emergency rooms across the country treated patients for fractured ribs, broken wrists, shoulder dislocations and even spinal-cord injuries.
Talking to your teen about social media challenges
First, if you’re not already doing so, consider connecting to and monitoring your teen’s social media accounts. If you have concerns about your teen’s interest or participation in challenges, talk to them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends some key steps, including these, for approaching the topic:
1. Can we talk? Ask what your teen knows about social media challenges, and ask for their opinions about them. Encouraging a judgment-free conversation will help your teen develop the ability to think critically about the rewards versus the potential risks of such activities.
2. Have you ever done a social media challenge? Ask your teen if they’ve considered participating in a challenge, and which ones interest them. Ask open-ended questions, such as: What is it about this particular challenge that appeals to you? Why do you think this challenge is so popular? What are the benefits of doing this?
3. Shy teen? If your teen is reluctant to talk about social media challenges, ask them if their friends are doing them, or what they’ve heard from other students at school. Sometimes it’s easier to relay information about what “a friend” has said or done than it is to share their own experiences.
How to vet social media challenges
The best way to stay informed about internet challenges is to talk to your teen, and these resources can help you bring context to the conversation.
It’s also a good idea to get in the practice of cross-referencing a challenge using multiple sources. For example:
Ask other adults — Your teen’s teachers, coaches and other parents can offer information and insight into popular social media challenges and their potential risks.
Check the hashtag online — It may sound like common sense, but Google the challenge online, and then look for it by using the hashtag on social media.
As a final step, use a fact-checking website like Snopes.com to verify whether a social media challenge is real or a hoax.
Talk to your kids about social media challenges early and often.
If your teen is gravitating toward internet challenges as a way to feel more connected to their peers and community, here are some ideas for helping them maintain healthy connections, both online and in real life.
1. Support your teen’s interest by encouraging their participation in safe and positive online challenges, such as TikTok dance challenges, singing a duet with a celebrity or joining a fundraising campaign. At the same time, help them understand the differences between positive and negative online challenges.
2. Challenge your teen and their friends to create a social media challenge of their own. For example, fitness challenges on TikTok can motivate kids to move around more. And there are some great challenges you can do together, like this mother and son push up challenge.
3. Make it a family challenge. Use the social media challenge as a prompt to try new experiences together as a family. Challenge each other to find one new challenge each month to do together. This can help you keep an eye on the latest online challenges while still using the most appropriate ones as a fun and creative way to connect with your teen.
Navigating the world of social media can be tricky for both teens and parents. Staying informed, keeping an open mind and ensuring that the lines of communication stay open may very well be the ultimate #parentingchallenge.