Young burn victim may have participated in dangerous 'challenge' because the teen brain is 'wired for risk-taking'

Timiyah Landers is fighting for her life after trying the fire challenge. (Photos: Courtesy of Brandi Owens)
Timiyah Landers is fighting for her life after trying the fire challenge. (Photos: Courtesy of Brandi Owens)

The age-old warning “Don’t play with fire” has never been so relevant. A 12-year-old girl is in intensive care recovering from severe second- and third-degree burns covering 49 percent of her body after attempting the fire challenge.

The viral experiment took off in 2014 and is unfortunately making a comeback. The fire challenge consists of pouring rubbing alcohol on yourself, lighting it on fire, and racing to put out the subsequent blaze before you get burned. Kids seem to think rubbing alcohol will delay the burning process.

Timiyah Landers took on the challenge last Friday and, not surprisingly, it ended in disaster. Her mother, Brandi Owens, awoke from a nap at her home in Detroit to see her preteen daughter running down their hallway “on fire from her knees to her hair,” she told People. After she and her fiancé extinguished the flames with towels, they rushed Timiyah to the hospital. “Her vitals are good, but she’s still on a ventilator and feeding tube. They’re slowly trying to wean her off the ventilator,” Owens said. “It will be a long recovery. She had surgery and received temporary artificial skin to her burns, but she’s going to need three or four more surgeries and skin grafts.”

Owens found out her daughter willingly set herself on fire from her two friends, who were with her when it happened. “I was angry, very angry,” Owens said. “I couldn’t believe she would do that. She knows better. I don’t know what she was thinking, doing that crazy stuff.”

Well, Timiyah might not necessarily have known better. “The teen brain is a very different sort of brain than a fully-developed adult brain, and actually there’s a lot of research and anecdotal evidence that the teen brain is designed for risk-taking,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in family and youth issues.

Decision-making happens in the brain’s frontal cortex. “What happens is the brain develops from the back to the front, and the frontal cortex is the last thing to develop,” Greenberg explains. “So teens have an undeveloped front part of the brain, so their brains aren’t wired yet to engage in good decisions.”

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, because their frontal cortex and decision-making skills aren’t developed yet, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and engage in dangerous or risky behavior. They are also less likely to think before they act or pause to consider the consequences of their actions.

So Timiyah, and the thousands of other kids who participate in dangerous trending challenges — like the Tide Pod challenge or the condom challenge — might not actually know better.

On top of that, “the teen brain is extremely sensitive to the rewards of peer relationships,” Greenberg adds. “So they want to do what they feel is going to please their peers and what’s going to make them fit in.” This is why these dangerous challenges spread so quickly and widely. “Because the motivation to fit in is so strong, teens will basically do almost anything to fit in, including put themselves at risk,” says Greenberg.

These two factors put together “lead teens to engage in this sort of risky behavior,” she says.

It doesn’t help that some viral challenges seem completely innocent. Who doesn’t want to dump a bucket of ice on their head to raise money for ALS? Yet, at least two people died doing it. What’s wrong with downing a spoonful of cinnamon in less than a minute? It might seem sweet, but between January and March 2012, U.S. poison control centers received more than 120 emergency calls related to the cinnamon challenge; it has led to lung scarring, emphysema, and a collapsed lung.

Beth Ebel, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Washington School of Medicine and safety expert at the UW Medicine/Harborview Injury Research and Prevention Center, does not see these challenges as games. “They are online activities designed to titillate and frighten but with the objective of getting views,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So it’s more of a gladiator sport with an element of cruelty or self-harm.”

Both Ebel and Greenberg think parents need to step in and “act like their child’s frontal cortex in order to protect them from partaking in these dangerous activities,” advises Greenberg. “And then talk to them about what these trends are and talk to them about what could happen.”

The minute a parent sees a challenge trending, they should address it. “They’ve got to talk to their kids about these risks,” Greenberg says. “They have to act like part of the child’s brain until it’s fully developed.”

Ebel thinks kids have the potential to make the right decisions about risky challenges — with a little guidance. “A YouTube personality’s goal is really to get you to click a button and watch it,” she points out, explaining why people record and promote themselves taking such risks. Ebel suggests that once a child realizes that the person behind the video is trying to manipulate them, they may be less willing to try the challenge.

She also thinks we have to hold social media platforms and users accountable. “The YouTuber might not see what they are actually doing, but they are talking some other kid into doing this and challenging them to do it. It’s a form of cruel bullying at the end of the day,” she insists. “You’re challenging someone to do something, but you know it’s harmful. I think the challenge is to deal with this as it is, which is bullying and a public health risk.”

Law enforcement and schools are taking these challenges seriously. Police in Canada recently warned locals about the Momo challenge, which has resulted in at least one suicide. And schools warned parents about the slapping prank known as necking after a child was injured last week as a result of the aggressive after-school experiment.

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