Online Challenges: Don't You Dare Anyway!

TikTok is said to be colorful and fun. But some challenges there are life-threatening. A survey now makes the problem measurable. The platform does little.

That it might not be a good idea to take a large amount of allergy medication to get high can be guessed at with a little thought. However, this could be said of the many tests of courage that young people face each other. And so in 2020 young people still threw themselves the pills, filmed themselves, posted the videos on TikTok and challenged others to do the same. That was the #BenadrylChallenge. 

Such challenges - requests to take part in an action and post a video of it - are a popular genre on TikTok: They can be nice actions like the #BeautyModeChallenge, for which celebrities, among others, poked up at the beginning of the pandemic . It can be absurd calls like the #DeviousLickChallenge in the US that incited students to steal masks, soap dispensers and even toilets from schools. But it can also be dangerous, sometimes life-threatening calls - like the #BenadrylChallenge.

Such digital challenges have already existed on other social networks, just think of the #IceBucketChallenge on Facebook : People showered themselves with ice-cold water to draw attention to the nervous disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). But TikTok is the digital place where young people currently meet, where they post short videos, dance to popular songs or add new music to their clips with weird sounds. TikTok also invites you to challenge: you can easily refer to videos of other users with the stitch or duet function. Many parents don't really see through this. 

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Accordingly, there is often a great deal of excitement when a potentially dangerous challenge suddenly pops up. A good example of this is the #TidePodChallenge, a digital challenge where young people put detergent capsules in their mouths. In 2018, media reported about the dangers of consumption , the US Consumer Safety Authority warned, and parenting blogs were also worried. Detergent manufacturers felt compelled  to react.

The problem: it is often difficult to estimate how big these movements actually are, because there is no data. Are a few dozen involved? Hundreds? Millions? And what influence do the challenges have then?

Small phenomena, great attention.

A report by the British organization Praesidio Safeguarding , which advocates protection in the digital world, should now bring a little more clarity. On behalf of TikTok, 5,400 young people between the ages of 13 and 19 were asked online about how they perceive challenges on the Internet in general - not just on TikTok. The answers from 4,500 parents and 1,000 educators were also included in the study. 

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One in five young people stated that they had already participated in an online challenge. Two percent said they took part in a risky and dangerous challenge. And 0.3 percent say they have already taken part in a very dangerous challenge. According to the survey, 13 to 15 year olds were more likely to participate in online challenges than 18 to 19 year olds. 

According to the young people surveyed, dangerous challenges appear on their for-you page, i.e. the TikTok homepage, or in the news feed of other social media, but they do not dominate them. For the survey, you should think back to a current challenge and rate it. The young people perceived 48 percent of the challenges as "funny and easy". 32 percent rated the respondents as "risky but safe". 14 percent were classified as "risky and dangerous" and three percent as very dangerous.

According to the definition in the survey, a challenge is considered dangerous if it can lead to "significant physical injuries or permanent damage". This could include the #BenadrylChallenge, since an overdose can lead to undesirable side effects such as psychosis and in the worst case even death, but also the recently debated #MilkCrateChallenge , in which people built wobbly structures out of milk cartons, went over it - and often fell down.

However: What parents or educators might classify as "very dangerous", some young people might consider to be a calculable risk. In other words: How problematic a phenomenon is can be assessed differently subjectively. In any case, very few teenagers see a fundamental problem with challenges in the study: In general, around half of them who have already participated in digital challenges rate their participation as neutral, while a third saw them as positive. One in ten reported negative effects.

The authors of the study conclude: Not all challenges are created equal - and not all are bad. If you want to prevent young people from taking part in dangerous challenges, then you shouldn't consider all digital challenges as threatening, according to the study. That would be inconsistent with the "lived experiences of young people".   

Now it is not surprising that a paper commissioned by TikTok comes to the conclusion that online challenges are not perceived as being that bad at all. In fact, this is partly shown by data from other sources. Figures for the #TidePodChallenge, for example, suggested that more young people put detergent capsules in their mouths than before as a result of the challenge. Ultimately, it was probably just a few dozen young people and not millions. Nevertheless, one must the risk of such challenges do not downplay: young people should already have come to death , because they have participated in dangerous challenges such as #BenadrylChallenge - even if the causality is sometimes difficult to understand. 

Play with fear

Sometimes challenges are circulating on the internet that are supposed to spread fear. One example of this is the Momo Challenge , which has appeared again and again on various platforms for years: Allegedly, this figure is supposed to encourage children and young people to do increasingly dangerous things - including suicide. This is nothing more than a digital ghost story: some people actually cut pictures of a doll in popular children's programs such as Peppa Pig with the call to contact "Momo". But there is no evidence that children were actually harmed, as the researchers Andy Phippen and Emma Bond emphasize in a study on the phenomenon ( Phippen, 2019 ). The whole thing is essentially a "hoax", a rumor.

In a sub-point, the TikTok-funded study also deals with these hoax challenges. Both young people and parents showed themselves to be unsettled by such stories. Young people because they sometimes cannot classify whether a challenge is a fake or not. Parents, because they often don't know how to talk to their children about it without first making them aware of the challenge through the conversation. 

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A dilemma that not only parents have: How to deal with these digital participatory hashtags, whether hoaxes or not, that must also be asked by traditional media and people who warn of such challenges on social media. The data in the study shows that social media play the largest role in the awareness of online challenges. But traditional media also ensure that people become aware of the online prompts, especially parents and carers. In the worst case, you warn of something that may not be that big - and that's what makes it interesting.

Why do young people even take part in such digital tests of courage? Anyone who has ever been to a school playground knows the answer to this: attention. Every second young person surveyed stated that views, comments and likes were among the three most important reasons for young people to take part in challenges, and one in five named them as the most important. And 46 percent cited one of the top three reasons that teenagers wanted to impress others. The study does not elaborate on why young people accept dangerous challenges. But when the coolest boy in the class says: "You don't dare to do that anyway", then some want to prove that they dare to do it.

Experts involved in the study formulate a number of measures that young people, parents, educators and also the platform should implement from their point of view: Education programs on Internet safety. Peer mentoring, in which children give advice to each other. Address widespread challenges. Reporting options on the platform. 

"We are already working on removing such hoaxes and curbing their spread in order to protect the community permanently, as these false reports are viewed as true by some users," TikTok wrote in a blog post. And then refers to what technology companies always refer to when they have a problem: more technology. TikTok wants to use this to sound the alarm if hashtags are suddenly used for "different or even dangerous content", for example if threatening content appears under hashtags used for food videos. TikTok also wants to compile information material and advice for legal guardians and publish them online. And it wants to improve the warning notices on the platform.

Of course, these are all laudable measures. And yet one can be skeptical that something will change. The psychologist Christian Montag, professor of molecular psychology at the University of Ulm and author of the book You belong to us! about the data business model of digital platforms, has been dealing with social media such as TikTok and their effects for years (for example: Frontiers in Public Health : Montag et al., 2021). He says: "Too often the platforms duck behind the narrative that they are already doing something. Over the last few years I have had the impression that they are merely saying they want to improve, but are actually just waiting for that the public is turning to a new topic again. In fact, not much is happening. "

Montag therefore wants more transparency from platforms like TikTok. Because a hashtag does not go viral by chance, algorithms control this by including likes, comments, interactions, for example, when asked how prominently a post is displayed. Scientists should be able to use interfaces to evaluate exactly how this happens, says Montag.

"Only then can we really understand how certain phenomena develop on social media, who watches certain short videos and how they spread," says the expert. In principle, some platforms, including TikTok, are "a complete black box" for science.

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