But isn't that dangerous? Most probably! An opinion piece by BIK Youth Ambassadors

What's the difference between a rational adult and a teenager? Nowadays, the answer may lie within one's reaction to being challenged with eating dish soap or spraying aerosol gasses into a lighter flame while indoors. This article aims to capture the youth angle on the issue of viral online challenges and the motives behind the seemingly irrational behaviours of many young people across the globe. To this end, we have interviewed three Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Youth Ambassadors. The valuable insights and observations they provided established the basis of this article, and shed light on how young people see this new trend of online challenges.

Daring someone to do a risky stunt is not a new phenomenon, and nor is accepting such challenges to impress or entertain a few friends. Many now-adults may recall such acts from their teenage years, where exercise of self-restraint was lacking at best. However, such behaviour has taken a new turn in the past decade and gained the "viral" aspect due to the widespread availability and use of the internet and smartphones. What is now commonly referred to as online challenges have become wildly popular, especially among young people. As João Pedro, a BIK Youth Ambassador from Portugal, very accurately described, "for young people, the notion of neighbourhood is digital. From YouTubers or celebrities, to the local community gathered on social media, the majority tend to create trends, which often come in the form of online challenges". 
 
But what really is an online challenge? The most basic description would be an internet user recording themselves carrying out an act that may be entertaining, dangerous or interesting in another way, and then challenging the online community to recreate the scene and share it online. By this definition, one might argue that a challenge does not necessarily have to be dangerous. That is, of course, absolutely correct. There have been many examples of harmless challenges, as cited by the BIK Youth Ambassadors we interviewed: those such as the mannequin challenge, bottle flip challenge, ALS ice bucket challenge, bust down Thotiana challengeor don't judge me challenge, among many others, were mostly for entertainment purposes and typically pose no physical or mental harm to those participating in them. But, then again, there are just as many – or perhaps more – that are likely to cause unintended danger or sometimes even encourage self-harm. 
 
The list of viral online challenges grows day by day and, along with it, the list of young people who have inflicted harm on themselves, their peers or property grows also. At this stage, to a rational adult, logic would dictate that the risks of participating in many of these dangerous stunts far outweigh the potential benefits (such as additional followers on a social media platform). However, there are other forces at play which must be considered as to why young people often take such obvious risks with these online challenges. 
 
Besides the most obvious reasons, such as entertainment and curiosity, BIK Youth Ambassadors cited peer pressure, the need to belong in a group, attempts to raise social status and the false feeling of safety behind the screen among the main reasons why these challenges are so prevalent among youth. João Pedro pointed out that it is misleading to assume that young people assess the risks the same way as older generations when it comes to technology; he noted that "young people see the digital world as an embedded means toward an end, being to have fun, raise social status or other, where older generations tend to process the digital with a different perspective because they know a reality where digital was non-existent".
 
Other BIK Youth Ambassadors, Lili from Austria and Simona from Bulgaria, both emphasised the role of group pressure and the need for attention. "I don't think that most people find it incredibly funny to put a spoonful of cinnamon in their mouth and cough it out" said Lili, to explain the impact of group pressure. She shared a related personal anecdote where the young brother of an older boy was coerced to take up the choking challenge and how he "would have been a baby" for not doing so. Equally, Lili and a couple of her friends were called "spoilsports" for attempting to prevent the challenge. Parallel to this, Simona mentioned that young people often do such challenges in an attempt to gain popularity within their friendship circles: "They want to be part of the community. They feel like they need to prove themselves in front of the others". 
 
When asked about what is needed to raise awareness on the issue of online challenges, what kind of support is needed from adults (such as parents or teachers), as well as from society (such as policy makers and industry), BIK Youth Ambassadors focused immediately on two groups: parents and industry, citing especially the big social media platforms. Educating parents about the opportunities the internet has to offer, while at the same time being aware of the possible risks children and young people may face, is extremely important. Parents need to be able to realise possible warning signs (for example, lack of sleep or sadness) based on their child's behaviour, the BIK Youth Ambassadors highlighted. In addition, BIK Youth Ambassadors argued that the big internet companies should better detect and limit the exposure of harmful online challenges, without violating the principals of freedom of speech. 
 
As pointed out by the BIK Youth Ambassadors, young people do not participate in risky online challenges simply because they are entirely unaware of, or indifferent to the possible consequences; ulterior motives – ranging from peer pressure and bullying, to attention-seeking and social positioning – are very likely to play a part also. However, with more support from various stakeholders, young people can be empowered to better assess the risks involved and resist these challenges without being afraid of becoming the "spoilsport", "baby" or "loser" among their peers. 
 
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, European Schoolnet (EUN), the European Commission (EC) or any related organisations or parties. 
 

About the authors:

BIK Youth Ambassador - LiliLili (Austria)
My name is Lili and I am a student in Vienna, Austria. After graduating this year, I intend to pursue my education at the main university in Vienna. I have been active at the Safer Internet Centre (SIC) in my city for the past three years and I am looking forward to new tasks and adventures with Safer Internet Forum (SIF) and the European Youth Panel (YEP).
 
 
 
 
 
 
BIK Youth Ambassador - SimonaSimona (Bulgaria)
Hi everyone! My name is Simona, I'm 17 years old and I come from Bulgaria. I've been participating in the Youth Panel in Bulgaria for over a year now, which is connected with the Safer Internet Centre. In 2018, I had the incredible opportunity to be a youth representative from Bulgaria at the annual Safer Internet Forum (SIF) in Brussels, Belgium. It was a pleasure for me to show that young people's opinions really matters and that we care about the future of the digital environment. The way we protect ourselves in the real world should be also the way we protect ourselves on the internet! I believe that more and more you§ng people will follow our example and will try their best to make the internet a better place to spend our time!
 
BIK Youth Ambassador - JoaoJoão Pedro (Portugal)
João is a young Computer Engineering student at the University of Coimbra. He has been a Youth Ambassador for about six years. Born in Portugal, he was one of the first members from outside Lisbon to join the youth panel of his national Safer Internet Centre (SIC). After attending a Safer Internet Forum (SIF) in Luxembourg in 2011 representing his country, he was invited to be a Youth Ambassador. Since then he has attended some seminars – including one in Paris at Vivendi headquarters, and another one in Cachan. He also attended the European Parliament for the launch of the WebWeWant handbook, and participated in two more editions of Safer Internet Forum, one of which took place in Brussels. Throughout the years, he has had the opportunity to both raise awareness among his peers and learn about online safety issues. All these events have also been extraordinary occasions to meet many interesting people from all around the world.
 
Young people's opinions are very important for Joao and he believes that they should be taken into account by both politicians and industry. That is why he is involved in several projects, most of them connected to youth participation in debates and decision making processes. More recently, he has worked alongside his national SIC to organise lectures in local schools and regional events, and has been involved in internet governance events, both at national (Incode2030 and Portuguese IGF – 2016/17) and international (Global IGF – Mexico 2016) levels.

Related news

BIK bulletin - June 2019: Dangerous online challenges

In each edition of the BIK bulletin, we look at a topical issue – in the June 2019 edition, we look at online challenges from the perspectives of various stakeholders. Geert Reynders, who lost his son Tim to a dangerous online challenge, shares his views on the issue and on how different actors can play their part in ensuring young people remain safe online. His perspective is complemented with that of the European network of Safer Internet Centres, young people, educators, researchers and industry.

Advice for schools on responding to online challenges

  • Awareness
  • 28/06/2019
  • UK Safer Internet Centre

Online challenges and crazes have become a key trend to be aware of when supporting and educating young people about how to stay safe online. Challenges come in many forms and can involve upsetting, harmful or viral content. Over the last few years we have seen a range of online challenges. Some, such as the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge and the No Makeup Selfie, can promote and raise money for great causes. However, other challenges such as "pain challenges", and "Neck Nominate" videos can harm young people and adults who take part. It is important that – whether a challenge is rumoured or real – educators have the tools they need and are ready to deal with such challenges and are able to support young people.