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.

Tide Pod challenge, Bottle Flip challenge, Blue Whale challenge, #InMyFeelings challenge, Momo challenge… new online challenges emerge regularly and quickly proliferate on social media, particularly among children and young people. They range from positive, helpful and funny to frightening, potentially harmful and even fatal. But why are they so popular? What are the possible risks they entail? And how can we ensure that children and young people, and all internet users, remain safe?
 
Children and young people challenging themselves and each other is not a new phenomenon; it existed well before digital technologies appeared in our daily lives. What has changed since then, however, is that the digital space has allowed challenges to spread more widely, reaching a much larger audience rapidly, both in terms of people becoming aware of the challenges and having a platform to share their participation in such activities. Social media have increased our tendency to show ourselves and our daily lives online. Peer pressure also plays a major role: online users, especially younger ones, seek to both imitate and impress their friends, because it makes them feel like they belong to a certain group. 
 
When it comes to the riskier challenges, they can also be a way for young people to test their own limits. But in some extreme cases, they can become dangerous and potentially fatal. In May 2017, Geert and Anita Reynders' son, Tim, lost his life after trying the "choking game" alone at home; an act of suffocating on purpose – in which participants cut off the blood supply from the brain to trigger a warm, fuzzy feeling – which can have potentially fatal consequences. 
 
Foundation T.I.M.
Following on from Tim's death, Geert and Anita started an initiative to raise awareness of dangerous online challenges among parents and young people, giving interviews to national newspapers and appearing on national television and radio. During that time, they received several letters from other parents who had been through similarly tragic events, but did not have the energy to bring this issue out into the open, or indeed had been advised against it.
 
In June 2017, Geert and Anita announced their intention to bring together a group of experts to shed light on the topic of dangerous online challenges, and asked volunteers to join them. 
 
Several months later, they launched T.I.M. (Tegen Internet Misstanden, which means "Against Internet Abuse" in Dutch). Through this Foundation, they provide parents and professionals with accessible information, publish a newsletter about emerging challenges and their potentially dangerous consequences (informed by a medical team), and are also working on an information movie. They strive to spread their message through social (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and conventional media (television, radio, newspapers).
 
Their work is now focusing on informing young people directly, although there is a delicate balance to reach in that regard: how do you warn young people about certain online challenges without piquing their curiosity and giving them bad ideas? That is why Foundation T.I.M. seeks to raise awareness of dangerous online challenges by establishing a constant dialogue with young people themselves.
 
Key insights on online challenges
Foundation T.I.M. recently conducted its first piece of research together with Jong & Je Wil Wat. For this study, a power session of three hours was organised with a group of 15 young people aged 13-18. It showed that the young people surveyed know many online challenges, distinguishing them based on their impact and danger level. In this study, online challenges were therefore found to fall into three categories:
  • Innocent, harmless challenges such as the bottle flip challenge.
  • Challenges that start out innocently, but can end up dangerously, such as the cinnamon challenge.
  • Challenges that are clearly dangerous right from the start, such as the Momo challenge (although, despite the reported severity, in the case of Momo it was found to be a hoax as there are no known cases of young people suffering harm as a result of it).
Young people mentioned YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Dumpert and Twitter as channels for online challenges. They reported participating in these for several reasons:
  • Tension/sensation – the dangerous element of a challenge makes it attractive and almost "addictive" to participate in.
  • Curiosity – trying out something new.
  • Strengthening friendships – sharing your participation with friends and thereby feeling a sense of "belonging".
  • Increasing their popularity – getting attention from others, in the form of more views, likes and followers on social media.
Participation in online challenges is also facilitated by the fact that the requirements for performing such challenges is usually easily within reach. Moreover, you do not need any particular talent to perform a challenge. Lastly, the potential danger of a challenge is systematically underestimated because participating in it did not have dangerous consequences for others. A 15-year-old girl surveyed summarised this as follows: "a challenge is actually the same as bungee jumping or fireworks. Although you know it is dangerous, you think: it only happens to 1 in 1,000 people when it goes wrong. That won't happen to me".
 
The young person's environment can also play a role in inciting young people to participate in an online challenge, since participation can take place in groups and/or under the influence of others. Friends and family play an important role, as they can encourage the young person to participate in a challenge (for example, by tagging or nominating). Influencers can also encourage a young person to take up an online challenge, particularly when they have a large reach and act as role models for young people. The young people surveyed also thought that school professionals and parents are not sufficiently aware of online challenges, and do not talk about it enough with children and young people. Furthermore they added that an effective prevention approach should not consist of banning online challenges, but instead warning young people about their dangers through conversations.
 
See the full June 2019 edition of the BIK bulletin to hear more from Geert (including audio clips) and find out more about the perspectives and responsibilities of various stakeholders in protecting children and young people from dangerous online challenges.

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The "Insafe insights…" series of reports draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in Europe to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations.