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

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 has especially skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as they spend more time at home dealing with boredom.

One way many teens are passing their time in quarantine is by participating in viral social media challenges. While many of these 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, …the list goes on!

Social Media Challenges: The Bad and the Ugly

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

  • Diphenhydramine, a common allergy medicine. This TikTok trend, dubbed “the Benadryl 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 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 Tide Pods, which reports indicate resulted in ten 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 downing them 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.

Social Media Challenges: How to Protect your Teen

Here’s the good news: You also 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, especially when they are home more often due to the COVID-19 pandemic and may be more likely to experiment. 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.

Take Action

Increased awareness can only mean increased prevention. Join us in the fight against teen cough medicine abuse by exploring and sharing our free resources.