Real or Fake, Online ‘Challenges’ Present Dangers to Teens

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Online challenges can take a number of different forms. There are innocuous challenges that involve harmless actions like changing one’s social media status to reflect a particular message.

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Some online challenges are harmless fun.

There are challenges that are intended to raise money or awareness for some cause, like the Ice Bucket Challenge that was associated with ALS research and went viral in 2014. Then there are the challenges that sound and look incredibly dangerous (and stupid) like snorting condoms or eating Tide Pods. It’s this last category of challenges that tend to worry parents of teens since it’s often reported that these potentially harmful challenges are trending among teens. Take a look at what you need to know about these challenges.

The Good News

There is some good news for parents when it comes to these dangerous challenges: most of them really aren’t trending at all. The condom challenge, for example, is hardly new – it dates back to at least 2007. However, even then, it boils down to a small handful of YouTube videos. It was never a widespread trend. The Tide pod challenge has a similar story: while some teens have tried it, injuries associated with eating laundry detergent pods are actually trending downward, and those injuries that have happened include babies or seniors with dementia that confused the colorful pods with candy, not just teens looking for social media clicks.

How do these so-called trends that aren’t really trending end up the subject of dire warnings in the headlines of mainstream news sources? It seems that reporting can sometimes take on a life of its own, much like a game of Telephone – an isolated or rare incident gets reported by one news outlet, then as others pick it up, the story morphs from reporting about an isolated incident into reporting about a trend, even when no such trend exists.

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Fortunately most teens recognize fake “challenges,” but some are harder to distinguish from real ones.

The Bad News

So you don’t have to worry about every ridiculous-sounding trend that pops up in your news feed. The odds are good that few of your teen’s friends, if any, are even thinking about snorting condoms or eating Tide Pods. However, that doesn’t mean that these faux trends are entirely harmless.

There is a kernel of truth to many of these challenges. Even if they aren’t really popular team activities, teens have done these things and may do so again. Repeatedly seeing warnings about these challenges in the news and on social media may encourage some kids to try it when they wouldn’t have otherwise.

These challenges can sink into teens’ consciousness in other harmful ways as well. Take the “Cinderella Challenge”, a challenge aimed at girls that encourages extreme and potentially dangerous dieting practices in an effort to achieve an unrealistically tiny waist, like that of a cartoon Disney princess. Regardless of how many kids are actually participating in the challenge or how many actually believe that they can achieve the proportions of a cartoon character, challenges like this contribute to a culture of harmful ideas about body image that can lead to problems like depression or eating disorders in teens.

Internet challenges, real or fake, are probably not going anywhere anytime soon. As a parent, your best defense against the potentially harmful messages that your teen could get from these challenges is to be aware of them and talk to your teen about them, and about how to recognize and discard harmful messages. Parental monitoring software can help keep you aware of trending challenges that your teen might be seeing so that you can address these issues with your teen as they arise. To find out how parental monitoring software can help your family, get our free trial.