Online challenges that put children at risk are on the rise

Published: 29 September 2022

“Another deadly challenge spreads among children” – a common headline in the media, but unfortunately many people have no idea what a virtual challenge is about and what makes it so dangerous. At its meeting on 28 September, the Internet Roundtable for Child Protection, an advisory board to the President of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), discussed the dangers of online challenges, ways to curb them and the importance of raising parental awareness.

The rise of online challenges is not only a consequence of online space and social media services, but is increasingly part of the specific socialisation of young people, especially teenagers. However, the real threat has been the proliferation of online challenges that have become a trend in recent years, entailing increasing physical and mental dangers, self-harm and even death.

The literature basically distinguishes between dangerous and non-dangerous virtual challenges. Social type tasks – such as the Jerusalema dance challenge or the Ice Bucket challenge, which is a solidarity type challenge – belong to the category of non-dangerous online challenges. The problem is not these, but the challenges that put participants or others at physical or psychological risk. Examples include challenges encouraging the participants to self-harm, to inhale or consume toxic substances, or to perform other acts that could cause serious injury. 

Just some of the dangerous and even deadly challenges that have become common in recent years: Blue Whale Challenge, Cinnamon Challenge, Car Surfing Challenge, Kiki Challenge, Benadryl Challenge, Blackout Challenge, Tide Pod Challenge, Eraser Challenge, Salt and Ice Challenge. There are many reasons for the popularity of online trends. In case of minors, these reasons are mainly related to the importance of social belonging, group consciousness and attachment. The literature and psychologists highlight the phenomenon of “fear of missing out” (FOMO).

Impacts of dangerous online challenges

One of the first and revolutionary challenge – which was spreading in Hungary as well – was the Ice Bucket challenge in 2014. The challenge was originally intended to raise awareness and funds for the ALS disease. But the genre of challenges did not stick to good causes, but headed for dangerous tasks. Online challenges, while they are often a means of strengthening peer relationships, can also generate physical or psychological vulnerability.

According to the Internet Roundtable for Child Protection, the most dangerous effect of these challenges may be intentional self-harm. Self-harm is defined in the literature as intentional self-harm or self-poisoning that usually starts between the ages of 13 and 15 and becomes more common thereafter, especially in the case of girls. The Blue Whale Challenge has found just these young people. It appealed to the vulnerable situation of anxious, isolated children, and culminated in self-harm and suicide.

Unlike intentional self-harm, there are cases where temporary or permanent impairment of health is a direct consequence of the challenge itself. One of these was the Cinnamon Challenge, also spreading in Hungary, in which participants undertake to consume large quantities of cinnamon. Inhalation of cinnamon can cause pneumonia, and may also lead to epithelial damage and scarring of the respiratory tract. A recurring example of cases of collateral self-harm or death is the so-called Blackout challenge, which, after its emergence around 2008, became popular again in 2021 on the TikTok social networking website. The task in this challenge was to hold your breath until you lose consciousness. Prolonged deprivation of oxygen can result in death by asphyxiation, especially in children. Among the domestic cases, the Train Selfie phenomenon became widespread, which called for taking pictures on top of stationary trains. Unfortunately, this year the challenge has ended in tragedy in several cases.

In addition to causing physical harm, challenges can also cause serious emotional damage, so in addition to self-harm, they can also cause fear, depression and post-traumatic stress in children.

Changes were needed in the community guidelines

The spread of online challenges has also been greatly facilitated by social media. YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp, and now TikTok in particular, have become the platforms most affected by the emergence and spread of online challenges. Action needed to be taken to tackle the challenges causing more and more death and danger. Most of the high-reach social media sites have changed their community guidelines and have announced tougher action against this type of content. Following the spread of the Blackout challenge that claimed lives, TikTok announced that they are introducing new content moderation tools and hashtag monitoring and filtering technology to keep children safe. In other words, if a hashtag suddenly spikes in interest, TikTok investigates it.

Despite the commitments and efforts of social media sites, these trends remain a serious problem. There are also questions about the speed with which platforms can respond to emerging dangerous online challenges and the effectiveness of the mechanisms to filter such content and hashtags.

But this is not just a task for social media, raising parental awareness is just as important. It is in our common interest that parents recognise when their children are in trouble, including when the children are taking part in trending online challenges that put their physical or mental health at risk. For that purpose, parents need to be aware of new online trends and help avoid them, interpret them and detect their harmful effects early.

In view of the importance and topicality of the issue, the members of the Internet Roundtable for Child Protection agreed to further examine the issue with the involvement of the organisations represented by the members and to put it on the agenda again at a future meeting.