TikTok’s Dangerous Challenges: When the Fun becomes Fatal

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

TikTok – the land for quirky dance videos and cringey trends- has made its impact on the Internet landscape, entertaining the world through its toughest moments this year. However, the platform is not always sunshine and rainbows. When it comes to its massive teen userbase, dangerous or even fatal challenges involving young children have proliferated on the app, causing significant concerns over user safety. But who is to blame in these tragedies – the unsupervised users, their adult guardians, or TikTok for failing to protect its users?

When the Thrill Takes Over

As someone who consistently refuses to use TikTok, I sure have a lot of critical points to offer, mainly because of the many incidents that have originated from the app’s darkest corners. Recently, U.S. middle schools, high schools, and even colleges have expressed distress over the viral “Devious Licks” challenge, where students vandalize and steal school property like urinals, soap dispensers, and mirrors. This has descended schools across America into absolute chaos. Some had to make the tough choice of only opening student bathrooms during break times and heightening security around the bathroom area. All of this hysteria started from one single video of a kid filming himself stealing some masks with the narration “a month into school absolutely devious lick.”

While police have begun cracking down on this trend, even more alarming and life-threatening challenges have been floating around the platform, inflicting major injuries and even deaths. From the bleached “Bright Eye” challenge, the choking-hazardous Breakfast Cereal challenge, and the outright stupid Coronavirus Challenge, to the life-risking Benadryl Challenge and electric-shock Penny Challenge, TikTok has it all. 

Nonetheless, the TikTok challenges that had me going WTF were the “Milk Crate Challenge” and the “Skull Breaker Challenge.” While the names already sound extremely ominous, the rules are even grimmer. For the “Milk Crate Challenge,” players stack milk crates into a pyramid structure then try to climb up. Yes, this sounds exactly like something frat boys in those teen movies would do. Still, people have gotten severely injured by this challenge, fracturing their bones, dislocating their shoulders, or even worse, damaging their spinal cord.

The same uh-oh meter also applies for the “Skull Breaker Challenge,” where participants jump up in the air while having their legs kicked from under till they lie flat on the ground. And as you guessed, many hospitals have admitted patients from this challenge, with injuries ranging from concussions, broken bones to neck, spinal cord injuries, and skull fractures. And the perpetrators have to pay a hefty price, with teens charged with third-degree aggravated assault for pranking their friend into participating in the challenge. Everybody is a gangster until they end up in the hospital or getting arrested by the police.

But the most saddening TikTok challenge has to go to the “Blackout Challenge,” where teens choke themselves unconscious to experience euphoria after they wake up. But sadly, many didn’t, causing three deaths in the U.S., including a 12-year-old boy, by July 2021 and one death of a 10-year-old Italian girl. While this challenge had already caused 82 deaths of kids ages 11 and 16 between 1995 and 2007, it has gained traction once again among young, vulnerable TikTok users, leaving many families devastated. And for what? Internet challenges.

I Don’t Want to be the Black Sheep

It is impossible for me to comprehend why one would engage in such behavior, and it can be very easy to just point fingers at the kids for their stupid, reckless decisions. However, everything happens for a reason, and the causes are no less depressing than the effects. Teenagers are extremely volatile individuals who are still developing themselves psychologically, physically, and socially. Claire Crooks, psychologist, director of the Center for School Mental Health at Western University, explains how teenagers experience a “lag in the development of the prefrontal cortex” and “need for community and belonging.” Therefore, these underdeveloped identities, when met with peer pressure and bad influences, make the combo for disasters. The school counselor and book author Phyllis Fagell further reiterates how teens at this stage are

“trying to establish where they fit in socially” and are “desperate for acceptance,”

making impulsive decisions to fit in.  

And in the era of social media, one’s self-worth can easily be inflated or obliterated by peers’ feedback via online social interactions. According to Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, participants of social media challenges seek positive reinforcement and acceptance from their peers by fitting into the norm, making them more prone to engage in risky behavior. And social media’s “always-on” presence intensifies this influence, where the constant loop of likes and comments feeds into one’s ego as they try to gain visibility among their peers. Especially during the pandemic, where many kids are cut off from face-to-face interactions, bored teens seek out stimulating, thrilling behaviors to feel that dose of excitement. As youngsters, I can guarantee that every one of us has done some fun, reckless things for the thrill of it all. But since kids do not always make the wisest choices, are parents accountable for their children’s online activity?

A Wake-Up Call for Parents

I cannot imagine navigating through parenthood in today’s age. There are so many risk factors that one needs to closely monitor, especially with the ever-growing technological use. As TikTok challenges are getting out of hand, parents need to step in and intervene. One can educate their children on understanding their digital reputation and practicing good digital citizen behaviors, by talking to them about these troubling trends and their risks. But, can parents fully control their children’s social media use with their sheer willpower, once their children are exposed to all sorts of content led by the platform’s algorithm? And is this only their job? 

Is TikTok the Villain?

While it is intuitive to direct disapproval towards the actual users and their parents, TikTok needs to maintain a healthy and safe environment for teens to interact. TikTok’s swift responses to these dangerous challenges have been, mostly, commendable. The platform has repeatedly restated its stance on harmful challenges and pranks, illustrated by its Community Guidelines of “not allow[ing] content that depicts, promotes, normalizes, or glorifies such behavior, including amateur stunts or dangerous challenges.” TikTok’s dangerous content categorization includes those that “shows the potentially inappropriate use of dangerous tools, vehicles, or objects, promotes ingesting substances that are not meant for consumption or could lead to severe harm” and “dangerous games, dares, or stunts that might lead to injury.”

The platform has removed the search terms, hashtags, and related videos of the Devious Lick Challenge, the Blackout Challenge, and the Milk Crate Challenge. TikTok also emphasized that they expect “our community to stay safe and create responsibly” and “exercise caution in their behavior whether online or off.” Regarding the removed videos, however, one can easily bypass TikTok’s ban by tweaking the search terms with incorrect spellings (i.e., #milkcraate). So, not that effective, one might observe. Nonetheless, while their firm actions somewhat solve the surface-level issues at hand, TikTok, like other social media apps, is not addressing the fundamental problem of vulnerable (underage) users. As adolescents and teenagers (age 10-16) make up 32.5% of TikTok’s user base in the U.S., this puts extra pressure and accountability on TikTok to moderate its content, consciously choosing what is allowed on the platform. 

While the company wishes that its users are aware of the content they produce, this is not guaranteed even with adults, let alone younger children. As these users are highly susceptible to external influences, their fixation on social media might entice them to conform to “exciting” challenges. Furthermore, asking parents to monitor their children’s social media use – what they get to see or do – is almost impossible. That’s TikTok’s burden to bear as well, not just its users. 

Everyone Needs to do Better

However, it is easier said than done. TikTok has strived to perform its moderator function, but of course, it cannot micro-manage every single video that’s put out on the platform or control the users’ behavior. TikTok’s issues reflect a more concerning macro-social trend, where attention and virality lie in the heart of our online interactions. While there is no one way to eradicate this problem, each actor in this conversation has the power to prevent unfortunate incidents from taking place. Yes, kids sometimes do dumb things, but adults shouldn’t use the excuse of “kids being kids” to neglect the issue. Lastly, TikTok must treat its popularity with young (sometimes underage) users with additional regulations and restrictions. Ultimately, this is the challenge that requires everyone to be part of.

Cover: Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Edited by: Anna Rauxloh


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