Social media challenges can be dangerous and even deadly. So why are kids so drawn to them?

(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images) (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Teenage dares may be a rite of passage, but thanks to the near-universal use of social media they have spread like wildfire. These so-called challenges fill up users' feeds with videos that show stunts done not for money but for internet clout. And while some can be harmless — or even, as Insider has reported, fake or not widespread — many viral challenges have been associated with injuries and even deaths among children and teens.

What’s driving young people to participate and what should parents be looking out for? Experts break it down.

What social media challenges have been called out?

  • “The Blackout Challenge”: The “choking game” — which involves people choking themselves to the point of passing out — predates TikTok, though social media has been credited with helping to popularize it. Intentional choking has been linked to dozens of deaths — as noted in a CDC report from 2008 — including several in recent years.

  • “The Benadryl Challenge”: The parents of 13-year-old Jacob Stevens spoke out in April after the teen died from overdosing on the antihistamine while attempting the challenge. Ingesting a massive amount of the allergy medication is thought to induce hallucinations.

  • “The One Chip Challenge”: Promoted by chip company Paqui, this involves eating a corn chip sprinkled with spicy Carolina Reaper and Naga Viper peppers, which are considered the hottest in the world. In September, Pacqui announced that it was pulling its corn chip product — which it warned was “intended for adults only” — from shelves “out of an abundance of caution” following reports that 14-year-old Harris Wolobah died after taking part in the challenge. While an autopsy for the Massachusetts teen is pending, Pacqui's statement noted that the company had “seen an increase in teens and other individuals not heeding” their warnings.

What’s the appeal?

Pediatric emergency medicine specialist Dr. Purva Grover of the Cleveland Clinic says that teens are especially susceptible to peer pressure.

“Their personalities are defined by what they are known for, not in the conventional way, but by the number of ‘likes,’” she explains. “Who is saying what about them online means a whole lot.”

Grover says these social media challenges are attractive because TikTok prioritizes content that gets those “likes.” What doesn’t get shown, she adds, are the people who get hurt.

“For every one or two things they watch that are funny, they don’t see the misfortune and tragedy that can happen behind it,” Grover says. “Because that doesn't go around.”

Matthew Bergman is an attorney and founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, who says TikTok and other social media sites take advantage of young people’s “status anxiety” to push challenges that range from the silly to the dangerous. And because social media feeds are determined by a constantly changing algorithm, Bergman says it’s near impossible for parents to keep up with trending challenges or predict what's next.

“Parents’ sense of helplessness is not a coincidence,” he says. “The products are designed to evade parental responsibility.”

The law center represents Norma Nazario, whose son Zackery was killed in a tragic subway surfing accident in February. She says he was inspired to take on the risky stunt after seeing what other teens were posting online.

"I was told, after his passing, that he first saw it on TikTok," she tells Yahoo Life. "He started doing the challenge and unfortunately he passed away doing so."

How can parents discuss this with their kids?

Bergman says parents need to lead by example, starting with putting their own phones down and engaging more with the family. It’s also important to talk to kids about the risks of social media, he adds.

It’s also worth reviewing the recommendations the American Psychological Association issued in May, which offer guidance on monitoring adolescent social media use, teaching social media literacy and looking out for signs of “problematic social media use.” As Dr. Nathan Carroll, resident psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, told Yahoo Life at the time, “Social media algorithms ultimately reward behaviors of excess. Users are reduced to data points, with popularity decided by likes, reactions and views.”

Grover notes that staying on top of social media trends is not enough. Parents, she says, must talk to their kids about what they’re seeing. It doesn’t have to be a lecture, she adds. She encourages families to make it a point to have dinner together as a way to talk.

“These things are small and trivial, but they pave the way for having a strong sense of belonging and safety,” she says.

Nazario said she doesn’t want anyone else’s family to go through the pain she is feeling.

“My biggest advice to parents is to please remove TikTok and social media from their phone,” she says. “Spend as much time with your child as they spend on their phones.”