Social media challenges are wide-ranging. But why do young people take up challenges that pose a threat to health, well-being and, occasionally, their very lives? We identified four key factors that motivate young people to participate in a challenge: social pressure, the desire for attention, entertainment value and a phenomenon called the contagion effect.
Social pressure typically comes when a friend encourages another friend to do something, and the person believes they will achieve acceptance within a particular social group if they do it. Participation in challenges that promote a good cause, such as the ice bucket challenge, often resulted from direct encouragement.
Young adults who engaged in riskier challenges primarily wanted to feel included in a group that had already participated in such a challenge. This was true for the cinnamon challenge, where participants rapidly consumed cinnamon and sometimes experienced lung damage and infection.
A form of attention-seeking behavior exclusive to participants of the ice bucket challenge was a wish to be recognized for supporting a commendable cause.
However, the attention-seeking behavior we observed among teens and young adults often led to participants innovating a more hazardous version of a challenge.
For example, one participant in the cinnamon challenge swallowed powdered cinnamon for a period longer than their peers. “It was definitely peers, and like I said, you know, the attention,” they said. “Seeing other friends posting videos and who could do the challenge longer.”
Many young adults participated in these challenges for amusement and curiosity. Some were intrigued by the potential reactions from people who witnessed their performance.
“It seemed like fun, and I personally liked the artist who sings the song,” said one participant about the Kiki challenge. The challenge involves dancing next to a moving car after stepping out of it to Drake’s song “In My Feelings.”
A Florida man got hit by another car while attempting the Kiki challenge.
Challenges, even those that are seemingly benign, can spread quickly across social media. This is due to the contagion effect, where behaviors, attitudes and ideas spread from person to person.
After analyzing digital media content related to the blue whale challenge, we found YouTube videos about this challenge often violated the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s nine messaging guidelines. Half of those who engaged in a risky challenge indicated that if they had understood the physical danger or potential risk to their social image, they might have opted not to do the challenge.
-The authors: Kapil Chalil Madathil, a Wilfred P. Tiencken Professor of Industrial and Civil Engineering, and Heidi Zinzow, Professor of Psychology, Clemson University. This article was first published in The Conversation.