By Nora Heston Tarte

The tide pod challenge rocked the nation as children coast to coast died from consuming laundry detergent pods. Parents are at a loss—why are teens participating in this risky, and seemingly purpose-less activity? Do they not understand how dangerous consumption of chemicals can be? Psychologists, parents and students have to ask why these social media trends are landing kids in the hospital. The goods news is, it looks like an answer has been found—or really several answers. Scientifically we can blame the brain, emotionally we can blame peer pressure and for the rest, well, it’s kind of social media’s fault.

Challenges

Unfortunately the Tide pod challenge isn’t the only one of its kind circulating on the Internet. New challenges constantly pop up, each one potentially more risky than the next.

Asthmatic students have landed in the emergency room after consuming spoonfuls of cinnamon without drinking water, the choking challenge has led to death more than once and the duct tape challenge gave one teen a brain bleed and permanent brain damage. Google condom snorting, butt chugging and car surfing and you’re sure to be horrified—and paranoid—about your teen’s behavior.

Why they do it

Psychologists, parents and teachers have several theories surrounding why teens participate in these risky behaviors.

Biologically teens are more likely to be impulsive. This is in large part because the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls rational thought, is not fully developed until adulthood. Peer pressure is also likely to blame as teens struggle to or thrive on fitting in. It’s social media, however, that seems to be the main driving force behind these trends.

“Often it is as simple as friends daring friends to be cool or conforming by engaging in the latest thrill-seeking activity, which can be viewed and admired by millions on social media,” explains Chantay Banikarim, a psychologist at Devereux’s adolescent clinic. “The dare may be a means of reinforcing friendships or gaining friendships depending on the situation.”

Social media works in two ways. First it gives teens a platform for receiving praise for challenge participation, potentially gaining social status by numbers of likes or views. Second, social media accelerates how quickly teens hear about these new trends. It used to take time for trends to catch on. Now teens learn about them within hours of inception and videos spread like wildfire.

“You know part of it is wanting to be liked,” Frank Lovecchio, an emergency room doctor and poison control contact at Banner Hospital, says, acknowledging that it isn’t only teens that participate in Internet challenges.

What you should know

Use the power of the Internet in your favor. It may be at least partially responsible for driving these challenges in the first place, but it’s also a tool for parents who may be feeling a bit clueless.

Spend time on Google looking at keywords such as social media, challenges and teens. If you’ve heard a phrase floating around that is such-and-such a challenge, plug it in and learn what you can. This helps parents stay in the know and gives clues as to what to look for.

There’s another side of teen challenges that indicate a different sort of behavior. Instead of thrill-seeking, a teen with a mental health concern may participate in these behaviors as a means of self-harm. These situations require a different approach so if you expect it’s the case with your teen, seek professional counsel.

Prevention

 

Teen challenges are much like any other risky teen behavior. Having open dialogue about them may be your best defense. Explain the dangers to teens and create a safe space where teens can come to you for help or advice if friends start participating or if peer pressure is starting to break them down.

“The key to a strong relationship with your teen is providing guidance that balances supervision with respect for privacy while keeping the channels of communication open along the way,” Banikarim says.

Because most of these challenges take place on social media, monitoring teen usage can also help. Make a rule that you must be able to follow your child on social media accounts as long as you are paying for their cell phone. Some parents may even restrict electronic use to a common area of the home or specific hours during the day.

Be cognizant of outside factors that could make your child a candidate for this kind of play. “Teens may engage in high risk behaviors in response to other stressors such as family discord, financial stressors and history of traumatic experiences,” Banikarim explains.

If you suspect your child is participating or might participate, lay out ground rules before the behavior starts. For example, offer a punishment if you find out your teen participated in a challenge behind your back, or a reward for forgoing challenges all together.

“Doing all of this is impractical,” Lovecchio, who is also a parent, says. “But we can try and strive for it.”

 

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