Over the past few years, internet challenges that coax tweens and teens to do things like glue their lips together, eat laundry detergent pods, and even douse themselves with rubbing alcohol and set themselves ablaze have garnered national attention. And in the process, they have frightened their often less tech-savvy parents, who may be one step behind when it comes to their digital usage.
How big of a threat are such pranks? Can parents police them? And, in their efforts to spread the word to warn other parents, are adults inadvertently helping dangerous online challenges to go viral?
According to Adam Pletter, PsyD, a child psychologist based in Bethesda, MD, who specializes in addressing today’s digital issues through online workshops called iparent101, these kinds of teenage dares appear on apps and platforms with heavy kid traffic, such as Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp, and YouTube — basically, anywhere teens gather for messaging or social media.
“I compare them to chain letters of yore,” he says. “They involve some type of scary or exciting set of tasks a kid is instructed to do.”
Much like after receiving a chain letter, “a teen might ask himself, ‘Is this something I want to do? What happens if I don’t?’ Magical thinking comes into play. It creates a level of anxiety that even the strongest of teens has a hard time brushing off. They think, ‘If I don’t do this, something bad will happen.’ Teens are more susceptible, reactive, and emotional. And it’s all by design,” he says.
That’s because brain development in teens is still very much a work in progress.
“A teen’s frontal cortex — the thinking and executive function part of the brain that’s responsible for prioritizing and critical thinking — is underdeveloped until age 25 or so. There’s a lack of judgment,” Pletter explains. “However, the emotional part of the brain — the amygdala — is overactive by design, because teens need to go out and seek information. It’s part of evolutionary purpose for survival. They’re learning about themselves and the world so they can be safe and successful in it.”
Throw in an unending supply of information at their fingertips, plus the chase for “likes” and old-fashioned peer pressure, and you have a recipe for lack of impulse control, even among the smartest, most responsible kids.
“If you ask a kid on his or her own if they would ever do these types of internet dares, with very few exceptions, most would, without question, say, ‘No. Never,’” Pletter adds. “Don’t assume they won’t. Force a dialogue now—before they’re tempted to put themselves in harm’s way.”
Pletter advises parents to address the threat of internet challenges with continual, pre-emptive conversations with kids — and with special phone settings.
1. Keep talking
“Create a contract detailing their internet usage, then have ongoing discussions as time goes on,” Pletter says. This means outlining the acceptable amount of screen time and app and digital platform usage, and explaining why internet challenges must always be discussed with parents before a child is allowed to act.
2. Know good vs. bad challenges
Remember the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that launched in 2014? Pletter reminds parents that not all internet dares are out to endanger your kids. “What you want is dialogue with your child. Tell them you expect them to talk to you about what they’re being exposed to online.”
3. Set up family sharing
“If you’re an Apple family, set up family sharing through Settings, so you know every app that’s downloaded onto a child’s phone, plus a kid’s privacy settings. Be open about it. It teaches your child how to regulate.”
4. Don’t panic
Pletter wants parents to keep internet challenges in perspective; kids getting hurt is uncommon. He also advises against posting warnings to other parents. “Sometimes just talking about them actually amplifies them,” he says, helping them to go viral.
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