Social media challenges. Why do our kids participate in such risky behaviors?

By Dr. Free N. Hess

Netflix recently issued a plea to its viewers to stop participating in the most recent viral social media challenge dubbed The Bird Box Challenge. In this latest viral challenge, people are attempting to perform various tasks while blindfolded, mimicking the characters in the wildly popular Netflix movie Bird Box. While it is clearly obvious how dangerous this can be, many people on social media (mostly teens and young adults) are making videos of themselves and their friends attempting to navigate their surroundings with a blindfold; people running around their house, walking the streets of large and busy cities, and even driving cars. ALL WHILE BLINDFOLDED.

The Bird Box Challenge is just the newest among a growing list of risky internet challenges in this era of social media. Some of these viral challenges are extremely dangerous and have resulted in significant injury, and even death, of those participating. Here are just a few:

The Kiki Challenge

In this extremely popular challenge, people video themselves stepping out of a moving vehicle to dance to the song “In My Feelings” while the car continues to move forward with no driver in the driver’s seat. Since becoming popular, this challenge has resulted in multiple serious injuries. Eighteen-year-old Anna Wolden suffered a head injury resulting in bleeding in the brain requiring ICU care during her attempt of this challenge. Jaylen Norwood was struck by a car on video during his attempt at the same challenge. Although he was aware the second car would be coming (it was part of his prepared “act” where he was supposed to jump onto the hood of the car), he slipped and was struck by the passing vehicle.

The Fire Challenge

This is a outrageously dangerous challenge where people video themselves soaking themselves in flammable liquid and actually lighting themselves on fire. Sixteen-year-old Fernando Valencia lit himself on fire after dousing himself in nail polish remover, resulting in second and third degree burns to his abdomen, chest, and neck. Twelve-year-old Timiyah Landers attempt at the fire challenge resulted in second and third degree burns to 49 percent of her body, leaving her intubated and on a ventilator in critical condition after her her friends convinced her to mimic other posts on social media.

The Choking Game

In this challenge, “players” perform various maneuvers that cut off oxygen delivery to the brain in order to experience a brief period of euphoria. Unfortunately, many have actually lost consciousness and suffered serious brain damage or death. Although difficult to adequately assess given that many of the deaths due to this challenge may appear similar to suicide, the U.S. Center for Disease Control has accumulated enough evidence to report that there was at least 82 deaths between 1996 and 2008. Since 2008 there have been numerous additional deaths resulting from young people partaking in this risky act. Sixteen-year-old Jack Servi, 12-year-old Tua Muai, and Erik Robinson have all been victims of this dangerous challenge. Pedimom contributor Liz Calato shares how lucky she is that her son Ian survived this “game”. Unfortunately, many parents are not so lucky.

As parents, it can be difficult to understand why so many adolescents and young adults are so willing to risk serious injury or even death just to go “viral” on social media or to impress their peers. So why do adolescents and young adults take risks more often than any other age group? Several key factors have been identified by research studies that shed light on this puzzling behavior.

First, there is an increase in interest and the importance assigned to peer relationships, resulting in an increase in susceptibility to peer influence during the adolescent period. Several areas of the brain make teens more sensitive to the neurochemical rewards of peer acceptance and approval, resulting in a strong desire to impress friends and an increased willingness to take risks by performing risky and “exciting” behaviors. (Albert, Chein, & Steinberg, 2013).

Second, adolescents become more distressed when excluded by peers than adults due to the immaturity of a region of the brain called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Brain activity in this areas is associated with the ability to cope with the feelings associated with negative evaluation from peers. The immaturity of this region in adolescents results in a decreased ability to cope with social exclusion and an increased level of distress when exclusion occurs, thus they are willing to participate in dangerous situations to assure inclusion and to impress their peers. (Sebastian, et al., 2011).

Third, the area of the brain that is responsible for decision-making and mature self-regulation, the lateral prefrontal cortex, is also underdeveloped in the adolescent period. This leads to teens relying on areas of the brain that are more closely associated with reward than those which are involved in calculating risk. (Albert, et al., 2013).

For these reasons, teens and young adults are particularly susceptible peer pressure and more likely that younger children or mature adults to engage in reckless and risky behaviors, especially when participation in these activities is motivated by social media. 

What can parents do?

  1. Start the conversation. Talk to them about their relationships with their peers and what they see on social media. Let them know that their brains are wired to make risky situations seem pleasurable and less dangerous, and that you will be there to help them navigate particular situations, without judgment, when decision-making becomes difficult. Frequent discussions can help them identify risky situations and develop better strategies for dealing with tough situations. “What if” situations and discussions of cases of serious injury can help to introduce the topic to kids.  
  2. Organize safe adult-supervised activities to satisfy their natural sensation-seeking desires, including things they can post on social media. Zip-lining, rock-climbing (both with proper safety gear of course), roller coasters, water slides, and horror movies are just a few examples.
  3. RULES. Make it very clear that you expect them to be responsible for their actions and will hold them accountable for their behavior. Praise them when they make good decisions and talk about the unintended consequences that can occur from risk taking. Many teenagers have difficulty grasping their mortality and capacity to be injured, so honest discussion, encouragement, and praise can go a long way in keeping your children safe from injury related to social media inspired risk taking behavior.

Parenting in the social media era is hard. Let’s do it together.

It takes a village!



  1. This is such an important topic to raise awareness of new social media trends. Totally agree with starting conversation and to be on the lookout for behavior that can alert us to these trends. Would recommend parents encourage their kids to connect and interact with peers in other healthy ways (ie. Sports, clubs, music, etc).

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