Today’s children are digital natives, with nine in ten teens admitting openly that they regularly use social media to stay in touch with their friends and peers. With all of this clicking and liking comes a hidden danger often overlooked by parents, educators, and adults. This surprising pitfall is the prevalence of online social media challenges and the potential health and mental pitfalls they harbor.
Take for instance the wildly popular cinnamon challenge that encouraged viewers to attempt to swallow a spoonful of the dry spice without any liquid. Even though it appears harmless, within just a few months of 2012 nationwide poison centers had received 178 calls concerning cinnamon overdoses and over the years children have suffered asphyxiation or serious burns to the lungs that require medical attention.
Unfortunately, the cinnamon challenge is not unique. Whether it’s the Kylie Jenner lip challenge or the choking game, unknowingly, many of our kids are attempting to recreate challenges or dares they find online. These desires often outweigh good sense, compelling teens to try their hand at some very obvious dangers and risky behaviors.
Just a Sample: 3 Popular Challenges on Social Media
Listed below are a few current challenges making the rounds on social media:
The Duct Tape Challenge. There’s not much that duct tape won’t fix, but boredom shouldn’t be one of them. In this challenge, children duct tape a willing participant to a pole and watch them break free. Unfortunately, there are documented cases of falls resulting in serious head injuries.
Butt Chugging or Eyeballing. Instead of traditional underage drinking antics, children funnel alcohol into their rectums or eyes to get drunk fast. For an added twist, some girls have begun inserting alcohol soaked tampons to achieve similar effects. These behaviors can lead to alcohol poisoning, damage of body tissue, blindness (eyeballing), and even death.
Smoking Alcohol. This challenge involves vaporizing and inhaling gases from alcohol to reduce calories. However, unfiltered vapors bee-line straight to the brain and lungs which elevates the chances for alcohol poisoning.
Risks Associated with Social Media Challenges
Besides the physical dangers, early high-risk behaviors can be powerful factors in brain development. A child’s environment and activities are hardwiring the brain, influencing which genes will be activated within a person’s genome. Research has demonstrated how adolescent brains undergo a dramatic growth surge that relies on genetics, environment, and experiences. Participating in social media challenges fulfills part of this equation.
The neural patterns and released hormones have the potential to cause patterns that trigger addiction, repeated high-risk behaviors, and more. Today’s children are making uninformed choices based on challenges that could physically or mentally affect them for years merely for a few “likes” or cool status update.
Understanding The Appeal of Social Media Challenges
It is no secret that the awkward stage of adolescence is greatly impacted by hormones- mainly estrogen and testosterone. Research has recently proven that there are receptors for these hormones in different parts of the body, including the organs and brain. These receptors allow other hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, and serotonin to influence brain development.
Dopamine, widely known for feelings of joy and pleasure, plays a powerful part in the development of the prefrontal cortex which leads adolescents to embrace greater risks to achieve happiness. In the beginning of maturation, dopamine circulates in the prefrontal cortex, but deep inside the reward center of the brain, dopamine levels are constantly evolving. These changing levels lead to needing increased levels of stimulation or excitement to reach similar levels of pleasure as their adult counterparts do. As a nasty side effect to this process, addictions easily form in teenagers.
Another factor influencing the popularity of social media challenges, is how teens often overestimate risk. Teens often get lost in the details about specific risks, focusing heavily on the rewards involved. The reward at the end of the challenge is what matters. Whether it is the satisfaction of completing a goal, garnering more likes, or comparing oneself to their peers, the reward is only magnified when social media is the primary mode of communication.
Social media challenges prey and thrive on the driving forces of peer pressure, underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, and the compulsion to fit in with their peers. It’s easy to say that only high-risk youth or thrill seeking youngsters are the only kids attempting these challenges. However, this study attributes these behaviors to a child’s limited self-regulation and development. It explains that these challenges have potential appeal to all children, boys and girls from every demographic. Granted, this thought can be frightening, leading many of us to imagine the worst-case scenario featuring our children experimenting with online challenges. Thankfully, awareness and education are powerful first deterrents when it comes to halting the lure online media challenges have toward our children.
This guest post was contributed by Amy Williams.
Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety.
You can find Amy on Twitter @AmyKWilliams1
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