Whether it’s the ‘paracetamol challenge’, which has seen children hospitalised after overdosing on the drug, or viral trends encouraging mass looting, there’s no end of social media challenges out there which are causing parents worry.
The recent events – which included reports of teens overdosing on paracetamol to see who remained in hospital for the longest – even prompted Donna Jones, chairman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), to speak out.
Jones told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that such trends, like the paracetamol ‘challenge’, are “incredibly worrying”.
“It is putting young lives in danger and I don’t think they understand the fun could be very worrying. It is taking up much needed ambulance and police time,” she said.
“We can’t afford for that to happen and I think parents need to get involved.”
Why do kids get involved with these challenges?
A lot of the challenges on social media platforms are relatively harmless and, in some cases, good fun. It’s not unheard of for parents and kids to get involved in dancing or cooking challenges together and have an absolute blast in the process.
So it’s easy to see the appeal. But what about these more dangerous challenges? Why do some kids seem to get sucked in, especially when they can prove fatal?
One particular challenge, for instance, called the Blackout Challenge, saw children trying to intentionally choke themselves and was linked to 20 deaths in 2022.
For parents and caregivers – especially those who’ve grown up in an age pre-social media – it can be hard to wrap your head around the fact your tweens and teens might consider challenges they actively know could be harmful, let alone get involved with them.
So why do they do this? Well, it might just be about finding connection, suggests Fiona Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic.
These challenges are a way “for young people to connect, albeit in a maladaptive way,” she says. “For many young people, taking part is a bid to be seen and visible.”
Online peer pressure may only add to this. Child psychologist Dr Nicole Beurkens told Qustodio: “Kids don’t yet have a fully formed pre-frontal cortex in their brain. This doesn’t allow them to think through and weigh the consequences of their actions, especially in the context of pressure from peers.”
Some of the challenges, like the so-called paracetamol challenge, tend to pull in children and young people who are quite impulsive, which can make for a dangerous situation, suggests Yassin.
“There is likely to be an element of contagion in these challenges – if you have a group of children in which one is slightly more impulsive than the others and partakes in a ‘challenge’, this can spark a chain reaction in the group.”
On top of that, teens might be struggling with their own identity, so “young people are more likely to fill the space in their identity with things that are not always the most productive,” says the therapist, “which is why we get some of these more dangerous and risky behaviours.”
Competitiveness, a want to impress and care-seeking are some of the other reasons why young people carry out these social media ‘challenges’.
“Girlfriend and boyfriend relationships become really important during teen years and the want to impress someone else could play a part here,” Yassin explains.
“Some young people may also unrealistically expect that some of these irrational acts will increase their popularity.”
There’s also the potential for more attention – a hospital admission from overdose, for instance, may come with increased attention from parents, friends and hospital staff.
“Whilst many people label it as ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour, this is actually care-seeking or proximity-seeking behaviour,” says Yassin. “No matter how maladaptive the act is, the young person involved is looking for a reaction from the community or the adults and their peers around them.”
So, what can parents do?
If you suspect or know your child has engaged in a risky challenge, Yassin offers some advice on how you might want to handle the situation.
1. Avoid acting erratically or impulsively
In order to protect our kids, it can be tempting to take immediate and drastic action by turning the Wi-Fi off, blocking certain servers or taking your teen’s phone or device away.
You might also feel the urge to hammer home the worst case scenario to your child. But the therapist warns that in response to this type of reaction, “children often lose interest and you risk losing the key messages”.
The key here is to have a considered approach.
2. Educate them with facts
If your child is looking at or talking about certain challenges, educate them on the risks.
“Stick to the facts and explain the harm of misusing paracetamol and other medications, as well as common household substances such as cleaning products and chemicals,” says Yassin.
“Ensure that the information you provide to your child is medically sound and use reputable sources to gather the information. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example, has a range of great resources available for parents and carers.”
3. Get help from a GP or mental health professional
If you think your child may be involved in, or be at risk of getting involved in a challenge, it may be helpful to reach out to your GP and ask a medical professional to outline the risks to them.
Yassin urges parents who suspect their young person is becoming consumed by the pressures of social media, has a mental health disorder or is suicidal, to seek professional medical help immediately.
4. Be inquisitive about what your young person is doing on social media
Curiosity – rather than making accusations – is key for parents to help them begin a healthy dialogue without their child shutting down. It’s all about helping your child feel they can come to you without the fear of judgement.
You could ask a range of questions: What social media platforms are they using? What do they see on social media that upsets them or makes them annoyed? How do they feel when they use social media?
As part of this, it might also be helpful to ask them if they think they have a different persona on social media.
“Just as adults have LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, young people will have certain profiles they use for certain things and they may be showing different sides of themselves on different platforms,” says Yassin.
You could even ask them how they think their social media persona might differ from their persona in real-life.
5. Distract them from social media
It might also be helpful to limit the time your young person spends on social media platforms by distracting them with activities they enjoy.
“Limiting exposure to social media is not to prevent them from having friends or contact with other people, it’s to protect their mental health and wellbeing,” adds the therapist.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.