Why do so many people participate in social media challenges?

Last week, we talked about the Momo Challenge how it made sense that some parents were concerned about it. Even though it was a hoax, many feared that people online were taking advantage about how often children and adolescents use the Internet to an extreme.

Social media challenges themselves aren’t new. These challenges (or lack thereof) are a type of meme, a popular thing frequently showing up on the Internet where people physically take part in some sort of activity, sometimes personalizing them or doing something extra to stand out and upload it on their preferred platform. These can range from the charitable, the silly, and the heavily involved. Recently however, challenges have started to become more and more dangerous. Websites can be using information you provide to collect data and in an effort to make their challenges different, people have gotten seriously injured or have died.

For the most part, social media challenges appear to be almost pointless. What do people have to gain from biting into a Tide Pod, knowing that consuming laundry detergent is toxic? Is it really worth rerecording yourself dozens of time until you perfectly flip a bottle and it lands somewhere upright?

When done safely, social media challenges can be entertaining, mind-blowing, and funny. Wanting to do a popular trend isn’t new to Age of the Internet, but because so much of the same content is being created at once, trying to make your attempt on the challenge unique takes an even higher priority. To make their content stand out, people take their versions of the challenge to the next level, putting themselves in risky situations that has the audience on the edges of their seats. This is where social media challenges can get problematic and life-threatening. Yet, they keep popping up, many people – especially youths – participate, several people get hurt, news outlets report on the dangers of challenges, and the cycle continues.

So why do adolescents enjoy participating in social media challenges so much?

One obvious reason is the natural human desire to be accepted and fit in. This is especially true during adolescence, where younger teens in particular are more likely to be strongly influenced by the decisions of their peers. Meanwhile, older teenagers are more likely to be influenced by those who are their age, as well as adults (though this is also something to consider since some popular influencers and vloggers who participate in challenges are also adults). So when adolescents begin to do challenges, others adolescents will want to mimic them, since their brains are more likely to rely on the brain that focuses on imitation.

The sense of belonging by participating social media challenges also includes something called emotional imitation. Sometimes, those doing the challenges will nominate others, and those who get nominated may get excited and happy that someone chose them to try the challenge and are more likely to try it (this includes the negative effects too: those who feel like they were nominated too late, after the meme has died down, may feel like they were neglected by their peers).

Studies have also found a link between adolescents who show symptoms of or are diagnosed with depression. This doesn’t suggest that just having depressive symptoms (there are other factors to consider, like the above explanations), but middle schoolers who had participated in the challenge studied in the article (the Choking Game) were found to have higher symptoms of depression and conduct disorder. There hasn’t been a lot of research done on the relationship between social media challenge participation and mental health, but it might be similar to the relationship between mental health and other activities on social media. For example, those who participate in challenges may use it to hide what they’re going through and only posting about things that people want to see, or they may use it to seek validation, knowing that these challenges are more likely to get likes and comments.

There’s nothing wrong in wanting to take part in a meme or trend and getting creative with it, but safety and self-awareness are still incredibly important to keep in mind.

Do you know anyone who has participated in social media challenges? Do you see them on your feeds? When do you think people are more likely to try getting involved in challenges?

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