The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is out with a new warning for parents about dangerous social media challenges. It comes after the growth in popularity of a viral trend encouraging people to cook chicken in NyQuil. Cooking food in medicine can concentrate the drug and release harmful fumes, leading to overdoses. As parents, we’re always on the lookout for peer pressure, and with harmful “challenges” such as this latest one making the rounds, it’s important to be informed.
We spoke with experts about the best ways to talk to your children about social media challenges: how to discern which ones are safe, how to help kids avoid the pressure to engage in risky online behavior, and how to have that tough conversation with your children.
What Are Viral Social Media Challenges?
The Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital defines viral social media challenges as “typically involv[ing] users recording themselves performing unusual, dramatic, funny, or risky actions and sharing this content with others who can then perform the act themselves, thereby accepting, completing, and continuing to share the challenge.”
“Anytime that something becomes popular, which is often the case with social media challenges that go viral, it can appeal to a child’s curiosity,” says Nusheen Ameenuddin, MD, MPH, MAP, FAAP, the American Academy of Pediatrics Chair of the Council on Children and Media. “There is a sense that if other people are doing it, it might be fun to try on their own, even if it’s an idea they otherwise never would have conceived of doing.”
While the latest viral trend might be dangerous, it’s important to note for parents that not all social media challenges are. Some challenges even raise awareness for a cause.
In 2014, the viral “ice bucket challenge” accelerated the fight against ALS, a degenerative neurological disease with no known cure. The president and CEO of the ALS Association, Calaneet Balas, said in an interview, “Five years after the ice bucket challenge soaked the world, the pace of discovery has increased tremendously, bringing ALS researchers closer than they have ever been to real breakthroughs in diagnosing, treating, and eventually curing this disease.”
There are other viral trends as well, ranging from funny dances to silly voiceovers. It’s important for parents to note that trends such as these are safe—as long as a child’s access to the internet is well-supervised.
Social Media Challenges for Good
On September 29, 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the drug Relyvrio to treat those with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The study of the Amylyx Pharmaceuticals medication was partially funded by money raised during the ice bucket challenge in 2014. The company’s CEOs credit the ice bucket challenge for the development of the medication. During the trials, patients who took Relyvrio showed a slower rate of decline in their daily function. Further study is being done on its long-term effectiveness.
What Makes a Social Media Challenge Dangerous?
Some social media challenges are very risky, namely when they include medicine or in any other way impact the body’s function. The FDA warning is clear: any viral challenge that includes the use of nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs is dangerous. Misuse of any drug, even ones considered safe enough to purchase without a doctor’s prescription, can cause overdoses and even kill.
Before the latest NyQuil chicken challenge, there was another viral TikTok trend that encouraged the overuse of Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to induce hallucinations. The FDA recommends sitting down with your children to discuss “the dangers of misusing drugs and how social media trends can lead to real, sometimes irreversible, damage.”
Not all dangers come in the form of medication in social media challenges. In 2018, The Washington Post reported about teens chewing on Tide Pods after cooking them, or just popping the detergent packets into their mouths whole. It may seem obvious, but eating laundry detergent is not considered safe. In 2013, the so-called “cinnamon challenge” went viral, where teens dared each other to eat a spoonful of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds, without water. Doing so can cause aspiration pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and/or permanent lung damage.
These social media challenges are so dangerous because they involve peer pressure and groupthink, pushing impressionable kids to risk their lives or health for a limited social media cache.
Why Are Social Media Challenges Appealing?
The dangers of some social media challenges clearly outweigh the benefits and fun of engaging in them. So why do kids still partake, even knowing the risks? Dr. Ameenuddin says it’s very natural for children to feel compelled to take part in what their friends and peers are doing, in both dangerous and positive social media challenges.
“Many of these children are just trying to fit in and conform to what they see all their peers doing,” Zishan Khan, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “Kids are often trying to occupy their time by doing something fun and exciting.” Kids and teens may also be chasing their own “15 minutes of fame,” Dr. Khan says, and this attention-seeking behavior is similar to children daring each other to do something silly or risky.
“[Social media] is linked to fitting in and how well you can perform and be admired by your peers [and] is a great way to publish things about yourself that are seen by many other students in your school,” says Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist also with Mindpath Health.
For kids, being seen online taking part in viral challenges contributes to their social standing at school. It is this kind of peer pressure that contributes to the broad participation in these challenges.
Peer pressure to perform in these challenges can be especially dangerous. “When these challenges go viral, the risk can be extremely dire due to how impulsive children are and how people will take part just to follow the latest trend,” Dr. Khan adds.
How Do I Talk to My Child About Social Media Challenges?
With the increased accessibility and virality of TikTok and other trends, it can be hard for parents to know how to approach their children about the risks involved with social media challenges. Kids can feel like the odd person out if they don’t take part in these online phenomena. Parents should explain the risks involved in partaking in dangerous social media trends.
“The most important thing parents can do is talk to their children about what they like to do online,” Dr. Ameenuddin says. “[Find out] what kind of videos are they watching, who do they follow online, and then talk about the impact that can have.”
She goes on to say parents should monitor their children’s behavior. “If social media is making them feel sad or inadequate, parents need to be able to discuss that openly with their children and maybe encourage them to take a social media break or adjust who they follow and the amount of time they spend online,” she continues. This goes for social media challenges as well. Parents should talk to their children about the risks and consequences of trying these viral trends, says Dr. Ameenuddin.
Dr. Khan explains that parents who are involved with their children’s use of social media can often be a safe haven for kids who feel pressured to perform for the “likes.” “The best thing a parent can do is simply make themselves available. Make it as obvious as possible to the child that they are there to talk to or lean on, and ensure they don’t fear being judged or shamed,” he says.
Speaking to your children about risky behavior is key. “Parents need to tell their children about the risks so they are able to make a good and safe decision on their own,” Dr. Lagoy says. Empowering your children to make good choices about their safety is a lifelong conversation.
By keeping the lines of communication open with your children about how social media can be rife with pressures, you can help them to learn how to discern what a safe challenge is, and what a risky one is, too.
What Else Can Parents Do About Dangerous Social Media Challenges?
There are other things parents can do to help their children regulate the risks they take on social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developing a Family Media Plan to help kids learn to regulate their social media use—with training wheels.
“It’s always important for parents to talk with their children regularly to understand what sort of content they are consuming and to pay attention to any changes in behavior or mood of their child. It helps to have some ground rules set,” says Dr. Ameenuddin.
Dr. Khan offers other suggestions, like having specific times when your child can freely access phones, tablets, TV, video games, etc. “With younger children, parental controls should be implemented regardless of how little they use these devices and it is smart to set timers on certain devices that automatically shut off when time is up,” he continues.
Dr. Lagoy also suggests the application, My Mobile Watchdog, which can help parents track social media usage. “The best thing parents can do is control the quantity of their kids’ social media usage,” he explains. If they must use social media, talking to children about the content they see online is vital.
Starting these conversations can be difficult. Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab provides some icebreakers to use with your teens for broaching the subject of social media challenges. They suggest “tell[ing] your child that you are always there for them and that you have their health, safety, and wellbeing in mind.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends several steps to take with all medicines to keep your children safe. That includes keeping the dialogue open about medications and the harm they can cause if taken incorrectly. Nemours Children’s Health Foundation suggests creating a contract with teens, creating an additional level of accountability for drug use. It would stipulate that you as a parent will be there for an honest and open dialogue with your kids, no questions asked.
The theme with children and teens is honesty. Being clear with them about the threats social media challenges can pose will keep the conversation open, and foster trust.
“It’s good to set up some screen-free times and zones in the home, but the main thing is keeping the lines of communication open and understanding what kids are seeing online and how that might be affecting their mental and physical health,” says Dr. Ameenuddin.