Social Media Challenges: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

This post was updated slightly in November of 2023.

Is your teen on social media? Probably. Participation on popular platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram is practically a prerequisite among the under-20 set. Digital screen time among teens during the COVID-19 pandemic skyrocketed as they spent more time at home dealing with boredom and seek social interaction with peers online. One way many teens passed their time in quarantine was by participating in viral social media “challenges.”

But just because the pandemic is in our rear-view mirror, that doesn’t mean that social media challenges are. In fact, teenage brains are drawn to popular social media challenges. And, while many online challenges serve as harmless ways for teens to entertain themselves and stay connected with each other, others promote negative behavior and can be dangerous.

Social Media Challenges: The Good

Many online challenges, like the infamous ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, can be positive. These challenges can even present opportunities for family bonding, as in the case of a family that used TikTok to document their themed dinners. There are countless other ways families can document their bonding on social media, whether it be sharing family lip-sync battles, choreographed family dances, instrumental jam nights, and the list goes on!

Social Media Challenges: The Bad and the Ugly

While the virality of social media challenges comes and goes — some may have lasting consequences. Being aware of these types of challenges is important for all parents. Here are some very dangerous ones you may have heard of:

  • The Sleepy Chicken Challenge. Taken down from TikTok to promote proper health practices, the Sleepy Chicken Challenge made its way to headlines last year. The challenge, likely started as a joke, showed TikTok users cooking raw chicken in liquid sleep medication. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning explaining how consuming unknown amounts of dextromethorphan (DXM), acetaminophen, and doxylamine can cause stomach issues, blurred vision, confusion, and in most severe cases, death.
  • Diphenhydramine, a common allergy medicine and sleep aid. This TikTok trend, dubbed “the Benadryl challenge” or the “diphenhydramine challenge,” urges teens to take large doses of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines containing the active ingredient diphenhydramine. Overdosing on diphenhydramine can lead to hallucinations and can be life-threatening. In fact, there have been reports that allege serious illness, and even a death as a result of the challenge.
  • #Carsurfing. Another challenge attracting thrill-seekers and risk-takers is #carsurfing, in which young people attempt to keep their balance atop moving vehicles. This challenge is nothing new; it’s been floating around YouTube and social media apps for a decade or more, but can result in devastating injuries and sometimes even death.
  • Choking challenge. A sporadic, circulating challenge tells adolescents that they can choke themselves or others with the intent of causing a euphoric high before passing out. Sadly, this challenge has claimed young lives as participants have accidentally asphyxiated themselves, or caused fluid buildup in the lungs that could not be reversed.
  • Consuming laundry detergent. Remember this challenge that went viral in 2018? It directed youth to eat laundry detergent packets or “pods,” (Tide Pods for example), which some reports say resulted in several deaths and a significant spike in poisonings. That figure reportedly includes a 19-year-old college student who made a video of himself researching the dangers of eating the packets, then doing it anyway. This example clearly illustrates that, for teens who are prone to impulsive decision-making and attention-seeking behavior on social media platforms, the perceived social benefits to participating in these challenges can sometimes outweigh the known risks.
  • Lip balm challenge. Also known as the “ChapStick Challenge,” there are several challenges that go by this name, but one is much more dangerous than the others. One version of the challenge occurs when one person wears flavored lip balm and another person kisses them trying to guess the flavor. While this may appear innocent and harmless, it is not. You cannot taste something without ingesting it and that is not how lip balm is meant to be used. It is meant to be applied externally to moisturize dry or cracked lips, but consuming large amounts of lip balm can give you nausea and diarrhea.

    Others have participated in the challenge by covering up a wound with ChapStick or another lip balm, which, again, is an example of improper use which can result in a more severe wound.

    And yet another version of the Chapstick Challenge is far more serious. Some teens on TikTok have been posting videos of their dwindling lip balm dispensers and hinting that they will “unalive” themselves (that is TikTok lingo for “commit suicide”) when the dispenser runs out. While some teens have posted this as a careless joke, self-harm and suicide are never funny and should always be taken with the utmost seriousness. If you suspect your teen or someone else is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741. Life is the most precious thing we have and taking it away should never be laughed about.

Social Media Challenges: How to Protect your Teen

Here’s the good news: You have the power to get through to your teen, even if social media messaging about dangerous challenges is reaching them. Have a frank and honest talk with them about the risks of participating in some of these challenges — that’s the best way to make sure that your teen is equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to avoid endangering their own health.

Here are some tips inspired by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Encourage your teen to tell you about the trending challenges they’ve seen lately. Just listen.
  • Use open-ended questions. If your teen mentions a dangerous challenge, ask them what they think of it, so that they can build the skill of processing their reactions and judging risk. Ask them what they think the consequences might be for each step of the challenge, or what the worst-case scenario might be.
  • Friend your teen on social media platforms. Stay in touch with what goes on in their day-to-day lives on social. Keep in mind that it’s possible for your teen to selectively filter which of their “stories” content on Instagram you can see.
  • Secure and monitor medicines to prevent teen misuse. If you think your teen is experiencing an overdose, contact Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) or seek medical attention immediately. Check whether substances with misuse potential may be hiding in your medicine cabinet now, starting with this guide.

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