Nutmeg, paper and salt - everyday household products that may seem harmless, but unbeknown to most parents these are all items that have been used in various potentially harmful online challenges that have taken social media sites such as TikTok by storm.
In the worst cases, challenges have tragically proved deadly - and yet children still clamour to take part, seemingly unaware of the risks, or prepared to accept them to impress their pals.
Former headteacher and dad-of-two Leon Hady advises schools about online safety for children, and, having two young daughters himself, knows only too well the potential pitfalls and dangers of social media challenges and trends.
Here, he talks through challenges, the risks associated and how parents can keep their own children safe without alienating them…
Playground pranks spiralling out of control
It’s important to note challenges are not a brand new concept - when we were kids we probably also did a challenge at some point in the playgound. However, what we do need to be aware about is that the Internet has enabled them to reach a far bigger audience, and therefore games can quickly spiral out of control. TikToK challenges have caught on so much because essentially they are the pranks or competitions children would normally do with friends, but now posted online they have the potential to reach millions. This means there’s the opportunity for harmless ideas to be taken further. The worry overall with these items is that unlike our playground days when fads would suddenly be over, audiences bring back and enhance many ‘classic’ or ‘retired’ pranks, creating potentially deadly challenges.
Fast track to fame
We also need to understand the motivation behind taking part. Often the overwhelming desire to fit in and to have a popular online presence means children may be inclined to participate in dangerous challenges due to peer pressure. With the rise of social media, now it’s also a way to get ‘likes’ and fame, and if it looks ‘cool’ they may not stop to think about the real life dangers. As many young people look up to a new era of influencers, content and challenges can in some cases be seen as a way to gain popularity, notoriety and income - leading kids to believe some challenges are worth the risk. So challenges don’t burn out, they take on a life of their own and at times, stakes become higher and higher.
Dangerous and deadly
Some challenges are of course more dangerous than others. For example, a child in Italy strangled herself to death while attempting one popular challenge. She was just 10, the same age as my eldest daughter, and these are the types of stories that understandably really strike fear into parents. However it’s important not to let our emotions impact how we talk to our children about these topics, and we need to encourage conversation. Watching TikTok challenges with my daughter shows me what she perceives to be ’cool’, and gives me a good overview of concerning content too, which I can guide her to report or block if she finds it distressing.
Other challenges, while not physically dangerous in the direct sense, can create long-term harmful self-esteem issues, and we also need to be aware of these. Challenges that focus on the size of your waist for example or on body measurements in general can lead to unrealistic body expectations and insecurities among children. While these won’t directly cause death, it will certainly create harmful ideas that could lead to mental health issues or conditions such as eating disorders. With teen eating disorders at an all time high, it’s another dangerous avenue to low self-esteem, which could also impact children in later life.
While social media sites will do everything they can to remove harmful content and block damaging hashtags, it is virtually impossible to eradicate dangerous challenges completely as everyday a new one crops up. This is why parents can benefit from being aware, and approachable. My daughter for example first brought my attention to a challenge involving fire because she was curious and asked me if it was a special effect or real. This challenge involved creating a fireball in a way that was dangerous. In a bid to address her interest I moved her on to safe and educational science videos of controlled explosions to try and satisfy her curiosity, and explained why it was dangerous to try these things at home. In this case it worked, but of course it’s not always that easy.
Addressing concerning content
Encourage your children to share what they’re playing or looking at online, rather than asking them if they’ve heard about specific challenges, as this may draw their attention to them.
Avoid showing them upsetting content, and remain calm. Speak about online risks generally.
Ensure they know what to do if they find content they find distressing or concerning, for example reporting or blocking, and encourage them to talk about their online activity with an adult.
Get them to think about challenges they hear about, and talk about peer pressure with them as they may feel they have to take part because their friends are. Encourage them to think about why they want to do it, and assess what could go wrong. Don’t build a barrier by criticizing, direct them to point out the dangers.
Online bans won’t work
As with all such challenges and memes on the internet, it's important for parents to know what is going on, but also to understand that social media is an online playground to many youngsters.
So while we want our children to be safe, banning them from TikTok because of these challenges isn’t a truly implementable solution because it’s impossible to implement and of all the good that can be found there and of course, the encouragement of creativity which is seen in the vast majority or teen produced and family produced content.
We just have to encourage more of the positive creativity rather than the life-threatening or mentally damaging, and ensure we are aware of what children are looking at by encouraging conversation.
For further advice and information visit: https://www.saferinternet.org.uk/advice-centre/parents-and-carers
Leon Hady is the founder of www.guideeducation.co.uk