What's the appeal of online challenges to teens?

teens looking at phones  
Online challenges offer a “wow factor” that’s very appealing to adolescents who developmentally have an increased focus on peer status and approval. New online challenges routinely spring up and rapidly spread over social media, particularly among adolescents and young adults.
Social media, in turn, offers instant popularity among peers in the form of “likes” and “followers,” providing peer acceptance, buoying the teen’s self-concept and, therefore, enhancing the draw to participate in these challenges.
The Tide Pod challenge, car surfing, mannequin challenge, bottle-flipping, cinnamon challenge, ALS Ice Bucket challenge, choking game and the salt and ice challenge are just a few examples of online challenges that have emerged in recent years.
Why are teens so susceptible to pressures to do challenges?
The adolescent brain is still developing, with the reward system developing before the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, decision-making and managing impulses.
This means teens are highly motivated to engage in socially rewarding behavior and gravitate toward thrill-seeking, without focusing on potential risks or consequences.
Teens also face peer pressure to take part, and they fear missing out. This fear of missing out (FOMO) is really a fear of not being connected to their social world. FOMO can be very powerful.
In addition, social media rewards bold behavior; hence, the bolder the behavior, the more admiration. Regrettably, adolescents are more focused on the immediate rewards of participating than the possible risks or long-term consequences.
What are the dangers?
Online challenges can pose serious risks. The Tide Pod challenge, for example, involves ingesting laundry detergent and can cause changes in blood pressure, heart rate, seizure or loss of consciousness.
Others, such as the salt and ice challenge, which consists of placing both compounds on the skin for as long as can be tolerated, can produce second-degree burns and cause painful scarring. There’s also the risk of death in challenges such as car surfing, even when traveling at low speeds.
The choking game is yet another example that can be life-threatening. In this challenge, a person either strangles themselves or has another person strangle them in order to experience a high through temporary asphyxiation.
What are the positives to doing challenges?
Not all online challenges have negative consequences. Some are designed for altruistic purposes, such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge that involved dumping of a bucket of ice water over a person's head to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The challenge ultimately raised $115 million to fund research for this progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Other challenges are simply silly and fun, such as the mannequin challenge in which people remain frozen in action while being filmed, typically with music in the background.
What can parents do to help teens avoid riskier challenges?
Parents need to consider how inclined their child is to engage in risky behavior, how lonely they feel and who their friends are.
If their child doesn’t have healthy friendships and a sense of belonging, they’ll be more vulnerable to seek a sense of connection online with potentially unhealthy peers.
Parents should ask their children what they think about online challenges using open-ended questions, encouraging them to consider the immediate risks and long-term consequences.
This will help teens build the skill of risk evaluation and give parents a better understanding of their child’s thought processes and judgment.
Parents should familiarize themselves with social media platforms and engage their teen in conversations about online challenges. It’s sometimes easier for teens to talk about their peers than about themselves, so asking about school trends and friends may yield more openness.
Be sure to listen with a calm demeanor and without judgment, asking them why someone may choose to take part, and if it’s worth it. Parents should also “friend” their teen on social media to stay abreast of what’s going on in their day-to-day lives.
Remember that while teens continue to grow and navigate social relationships, through these conversations parents can foster the development of thoughtful and rational thinking skills, while also maintaining connection.
Can performing challenges be a sign of a mental health issue?
Participating in online challenges is likely not a sign of a mental health issue in and of itself. However, teens who choose to do them repeatedly are prioritizing social interactions that aren’t as emotionally gratifying and can make them feel more isolated.
The negative effects can also have more influence when self-esteem is low. Check in with your teen and ask them how they’re feeling.
When should they seek medical help?
If a teen is showing signs of depression such as social withdrawal, decreased interested in things they used to enjoy, low self-esteem or having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to seek out mental health services.
Sabrina Sykes is a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

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