Social Media Dares: How to Keep Teens Safe

Are you worried that bizarre and dangerous online challenges will lure your teenager into indulging in risky behaviour and self-harm? Fear not. Here’s how you can protect him

By Aruna Raghuram

Social Media Dares: How to Keep Teens Safe

Challenge #1: Eat a tablespoon of cinnamon in 60 seconds without water.

Result: Vomiting, choking, gagging

Challenge#2: Intentionally cut off oxygen via strangulation until passed out.

Result: Brain damage, death

Challenge#3: Put salt and ice together on the skin and feel the burning sensation.

Result: Second-degree burns, scarring, nerve damage

These are just some of the dangerous dares and challenges that have gone viral on social media in recent times. The Blue Whale Challenge is probably the scariest as it has reportedly led to over 130 suicides. Another disturbing new social media dare is the 48-hour challenge that encourages children to go missing for two full days.

Why are children tempted to do dares

Parents are trying hard to understand the reasons behind the recklessness of their wards. Children are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and FOMO (fear of missing out). It may be the thrill that motivates them, the wish to be socially accepted by peers or the 30 seconds of fame – since videos of the dares are usually posted on social media. Also, one-upmanship is a central part of the online behaviour of teens.

Experts feel that if your child is thinking of taking up a dangerous dare, it could be indicative of low self-esteem, poor decision-making skills or a lack of insight into the consequences of the challenge.When they see other teens in the video getting a lot of laughter and attention, they think it could be fun. They may also want to win praise from friends and be called biggest risk-taker or the most outgoing member of their friend circle.

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in the US, has a scientific explanation. He says the teen brain is driven to seek constant stimuli and reward, as it is flooded with dopamine. This, combined with a still slow to mature self-regulation system leads to risky behaviour.

What parents can do

  1. Be open and approachable:Your teen should feel comfortable to talk things over with you, and you should listen without being judgemental. This way if he is contemplating taking up a challenge, he is likely to come to you first.
  2. Understand where this comes from: Acknowledge that teens are facing peer pressure. Their friends may tease them if they refuse to take up a dare. It can be easy to dismiss FOMO and the desire for likes as superficial, but for many teens and tweens, social media acceptance is vital.
  3. Discuss the challenge in detail: Very often youngsters do not know what they are getting into when they contemplate participating in one of the challenges. Walk through each step with them so that they figure out where things could go wrong.
  4. Talk about ‘social media self-esteem’: This comes from the number of likes or comments a post gets. Tell them they should not allow trolling and cyberbullying to influence their decisions. Social media has a negative impact on the self-esteem of many teens and tweens. Parental love and guidance go a long way in dealing with this.
  5. Encourage their offline lives: Help them participate in outdoor play, sports, art, drama, volunteer work and other extracurricular activities that will help build their self-esteem and make them feel unique, worthy and valuable. Your support will also help alleviate social media anxiety.
  6. Shift the focus: You can also encourage them to focus on the positive side of social media. For example, they could participate in the creative side of Instagram by entering photography contests and building a portfolio.
  7. Keep in touch with their online and offline lives: Be aware of sites your children visit and the apps they use. Look at browser histories, set appropriate age filters and check out the parental controls. Become their friends on social media sites so that you can spot any sign of trouble. Offline, know who their friends are and pose questions regularly about friends, school and trends.
  8. Ensure they have a varied group of friends: Encourage them to have friends from different circles – school buddies, friends from the neighbourhood as well as friends from among relatives. Having a varied and reliable set of friends will protect them from getting influenced by any one group.
  9. Keep a close tab on your child’s behaviour: Look out for red flags. Is your teenager cranky or uninterested in what’s happening in the house? Checking further can help parents detect any unusual changes such as mood swings, lack of communication, loss of interest in studies and falling grades.
  10. Set boundaries: Teach your children how to set boundaries regarding social media usage. Also, set limits for the use of mobile phones, computers and other digital devices. Ensure younger children use devices in common family spaces, so you don’t worry that they are indulging in any risky activity.

Talking to your teen about internet safety and peer pressure is not easy. But, it is an important conversation to have, to protect your kids from harming themselves, others or their reputations.