BYLINE: Max Esterhuizen

Newswise — Viral challenges have been around almost as long as the internet.

Some, like the ice bucket challenge are good, raising awareness on important issues. But others are not, and can put both youth and their parents at risk.

What makes these viral challenges attractive for youth? How should parents approach the topic of online safety with their children? A Virginia 4-H specialist and a Virginia 4-H’er provide advice on how to do just this.

Tonya Price, Ph.D.

Professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development

Why is it important to talk to your kids about the dangers of online viral challenges?

Although conversations such as these can be difficult for parents because they may not know how to approach their children, having open conversations about risky behaviors is critical. Just like with other risky behaviors (underage drinking, smoking/vaping, drug use, etc.), parents can start the conversation by letting their children know that they love them, they will always be there for them, and that their health, safety, and wellbeing is their number one priority. This opens the door for parents to talk with their children about the risks and dangers of such behaviors, and viral challenges are no different. It’s important to have an open line of communication with your children so they know you are aware of these challenges, what the dangers are if they were to participate, and, why they shouldn’t participate and the associated consequences of doing so.

Talking with your children about risky behaviors is a lifelong conversation because new things will always arise. However, having these tough conversations early in life will help your children learn to discern what is a safe challenge or behavior and what is a risky or dangerous one. In turn, they will learn and feel empowered to make positive and safe decisions on their own. 

How should you approach the topic with your kids?

Starting these conversations can be difficult, but need to happen sooner rather than later.  Some of the online viral challenges that our youth are exposed to are extremely dangerous, like the recent NyQuil Chicken Challenge or the Cinnamon Challenge, where teens challenged each other to eat a spoonful of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds or less, without water. These challenges can pose some serious health risks and our children need to be aware of this. Therefore, when approaching the topic with your child, talk to them about what they like to do online, what videos/sites they enjoy watching, what’s trending, and who they enjoy following. Then, do your research on what they shared and talk with your children about the negative impacts they may have.

If your children aren’t open to sharing this information, consider monitoring your child’s screen time and their behavior. If after spending time online they seem sad, depressed, or inadequate, talk with them about it and suggest that they take a break from the internet. Also, to more closely monitor what your children are doing and seeing online, consider designating an area within your home for internet time. When your child wants to be online, they must go to that designated area. This allows you to keep a closer eye on what they are doing and seeing, rather than allowing them to be online in the privacy of their bedroom or bathroom and unaware of what they are seeing.

Youth often feel pressured to “fit in” and perform for likes when on social media. Keeping the lines of communication open and letting them know that their value and worth is not associated with how many likes they get can help alleviate some of these pressures as well.

What are some of the challenges that parents deal with regarding viral challenges?

The biggest challenge that parents face is simply not being aware of the challenges that are trending. To combat this, have a calm and non-judgmental conversation with your child by asking them about the challenges they are aware of and their thoughts regarding them. Knowing how they feel will help with discussing and determining what is safe and what isn’t. In addition, be sure to “friend” your child and their friends on their preferred social media platforms.

If your child pushes back on this, remind them that if you are the one who pays for the phone and wireless network service, they have to friend you in exchange. Being their “friend” on social media can provide you with insight on the activities they are involved in and what’s going on in their everyday life. Furthermore, teens may be more willing to talk about others than themselves, so ask them some direct questions about the trends, fads, and activities their friends are in to. You may find out more about your own child, if you ask questions about their friends, than you will if you ask questions about themselves.

What should a parent do if they think their child/children are participating in a challenge, but unsure?

If you suspect that your child might be participating in a challenge or is interested in one, talk to them. Discuss the challenge you think they may be participating in and the pros and cons of doing so. Have them consider the worst possible outcome and if their participation in the challenge is worth it. Ask direct questions, such as is a trip to the ER worth the likes or views you may receive?

Alice Milton

4-H’er and Youth in Action award winner, healthy living and overall

As a youth, what do you see as the dangers of online viral challenges?

So many viral challenges cycling through the internet have been shown as dangerous to those who participate. For instance, the salt and ice challenge can leave chemical burns or permanent nerve damage. Within the past decade, the amount of youth engaged in social media has skyrocketed. From there, youth have developed a dependency on being active and relevant on social media. Adolescence is a very crucial time in psychological development, as it is characterized by the growth and maturity of the brain. Because the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully mature, decision-making can become compromised. Social media has so much influence on the minds of youth, and they become more susceptible to trying dangerous viral challenges because others are participating.  

What are some of the challenges that youth face with these viral challenges from these constantly connected environments?

As much as youth are connected to electronics, they consistently view viral challenges. Seeing a celebrity or peer participate in a dangerous viral challenge can have a significant impact on youth and lead to imitation behavior. This can be due to various reasons such as peer pressure, the desire to fit in or be part of a trend, and the belief that if someone famous or well-known is doing it, it must be safe. However, it is important to understand that just because something is popular or trendy does not mean it is safe or appropriate. It is crucial for individuals, especially young people, to critically evaluate the risks and consequences before participating in any challenge or activity.

What advice do you have for youth to get a sense of belonging and community in a healthy manner?

While viral challenges can promote an unhealthy sense of community, other activities can have a contrasting effect. Organizations like 4-H, FFA, and FCCLA cultivate a large community of diverse young leaders. Within an organization such as this, youth can discover their passions and congregate with new friends. Communities found in youth organizations focus on empowering youth to grow and thrive.

From my experiences within 4-H, I have been able to develop my public speaking, leadership, and advocacy. Youth organizations can promote a healthy sense of community by providing a supportive and inclusive environment. Youth organizations can help young people feel like they are part of a community by promoting inclusiveness and celebrating the differences that make each individual unique, youth organizations can help build a group that promotes understanding and respect.

Groups such as 4-H also encourage collaboration by means of group activities, events, and projects. Youth organizations can provide opportunities for young people to participate in community service projects and events, helping them understand the importance of giving back and promoting a sense of responsibility for the community.  

How can youth know the difference between bad viral challenges versus positive ones?

When deciding whether or not to participate in a viral challenge, keep these questions in mind:

  1. Why do you want to do this?
  2. What are the benefits of this challenge?
  3. Can this challenge harm you or someone else?