When We Talk About Crazy Teen Challenges, What Does That Say About Us?

Filed Under: Youth & Family


Mary McIlrath

Senior Vice President, C+R Alum

You probably heard about the 2018 “Tide Pods Challenge” phenomenon. Headlines screamed about the travesty sweeping the nation, in which teens declared that the brightly-colored detergent packets looked “tasty,” then ate them and posted videos of the consumption to social media. Then got rushed to the emergency room by their panicked parents. Some, reports said, even died. Adults nationwide shook their heads in disdain of this widespread idiocy on the parts of American teens.

Have you, however, heard of the latest “Shell on Challenge” on social media? In this year’s twist, the teens are eating the typically inedible outsides of food products. It could range from the peel of a lemon, to the plastic or cardboard packaging that contains cereal. Then the familiar cadence occurs—a post to social media, and viral and widely reported outrage among adults who know better than to try such antics.

But let’s slow our roll, adults.  In both of these “Challenges,” real evidence of teens actually completing the challenge, and eventually harming themselves, is slim pickings. When videos of the eating of the harmful object are made, they usually stop just as a bite is taken, or start after a package has had a piece removed.  Circumstantial at best. At worst, jokes that start privately and grow into feverish hoaxes.

What could cause and perpetuate such hoaxes, and why? We have two ideas.  

  1. The culture of well-meaning but overprotective, parents who don’t trust their children’s critical thinking or survival skills. Think: ‘80s “backmasking” when parents were truly afraid their children would be harmed from secret messages in rock music. 
  2. Media in the United States likes a sensation. It drives up ratings and clickthrough rates, ultimately driving revenue for the message provider.    

Don’t get us wrong, we love media and believe it is a primarily positive force in the lives of youth and families. But it’s important for adults to exercise their own media literacy muscles as well as teaching them to children, rather than having knee-jerk reactions to every titillating headline.

We also don’t mean to come down hard on parents. In our YouthBeat® parent survey, we ask a question, “Which, if any, of the following parenting issues, concern you the most right now?” The closest proxies to worrying about unsafe “challenges” are limitations on media usage, which for parents of teens are relatively low (19% for social media, 18% for cell phone, and 15% for internet). These pale in comparison to parents of teens who are concerned with having their children stick to important values (32%), and helping their teen deal with peer relationships (23%).*

All that said, why in the world would teens be drawn to view and/or create these masterpieces of disaster? On one hand, it’s kind of thrilling to get adults (especially parents) a little riled up. It’s a mild kind of rebellion that is, in a way, necessary to developing independence and learning the world’s boundaries. Gen Z isn’t as classically rebellious as some prior generations—they’ll share music with their parents and don’t exhibit as much risky behavior like substance use or teen pregnancy—but they still need to forge their own paths.

Plus, while teens’ brains are nearly developed to an adult level, their prefrontal cortexes aren’t. That’s the part of the brain that governs impulse control and judgment. It explains why teens don’t always make good decisions—they still need some trial and error.

There’s also something to be said for just wanting to belong to something exciting, be a part of a phenomenon, and to be “in the know” about the latest trends. These are the same motivators that drive interest in superhero and Star Wars movie franchises.

Also, it’s important to acknowledge that these same desires drive teens’ participation in more prosocial “challenges.” Nearly five years ago, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge changed the way young people think about putting their money, and themselves, where their mouths are. When we ask teens, “What social issues concern you the most?” four in ten choose “Finding a cure for/preventing the spread of disease.”**  Through the power of social media, anyone (young people included) could generate awareness and raise money for ALS research by simply dumping a bucket of ice on dad’s head.  In a year, that campaign raised over $115 Million for the ALS Association.^

Another cause close to teens’ hearts is “Protecting the environment,” with 39% naming it as one of their greatest social concerns.** And plenty of them are using the #trashtag Challenge to make a difference. As we reported in our latest Trendspotter, this March teen Byron Román used Facebook to get his fellow teens involved in the already-existing initiative.  To participate, they photograph an area that needs cleaning, then pick up and bag the litter, and then take an “after” photo of the clean scene and the pile of bags.  In the first month after his post, it was shared more than 300,000 times, and thousands of young people as well as adults had risen to the challenge.

So, what do we make of all of this? Our POV is that adults can’t protect teens, or shame them away, from every bad decision they might make. We can, however, talk to them about critical thinking and judgment and help them learn to make good decisions. And do so ourselves too, by encouraging prosocial involvement, and not freaking out about every fad, true or fake, that might be running through their culture.

*Source: YouthBeat® Parents Survey Total Year 2018
**Source: YouthBeat® Youth Survey Total Year 2018
^Source: ALS Association

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