Dear PropellerHeads: My kid seems really interested in internet challenges, but I’ve heard some could be dangerous. Should I be worried?

A: I’m going to state the obvious first, that you need to be concerned about your child’s internet activity in general. How you choose to do so has a lot to do with your parenting style, but most importantly your child, their maturity, and their willingness to come to you should they encounter something they don’t understand or find concerning.

To speak to challenges specifically, it seems like this phenomenon was really built for young people and how they choose to interact with the internet, social media, and online content. Challenges such as the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” and the “Mannequin Challenge” set up the structure of something that was easily imitable, shareable, and infectious.

Children and teens are more impulsive, as their brains are still developing, and many look for positive affirmation and reinforcement from their peers. Posting their own version of a challenge on their social media or YouTube and waiting for likes and views to roll in provides easy and instant validation for those still navigating the murky waters of establishing self-confidence.

So, big deal, your kid wants to douse their friend with cold water, or do a silly dance routine and post it for their friends. What’s the problem?

It’s when those putting out and propagating these challenges prey on (or don’t consider) the impulsivity, naivety, and need to belong in kids that you should really begin to worry. The “In my Feelings Challenge” seems harmless and fun at first glance as simply another dance routine to do by yourself or with friends and put your own version out.

Perhaps not ill-intended, most versions of this challenge involve the dancer jumping out of a moving car to perform the dance moves (bit.ly/2KqB19G). This is a dangerous choice at any age, but the sheer number of videos with people successfully completing the challenge in this way may encourage an impressionable young person to jump into doing something with dire consequences.

Challenges like the “Cinnamon Challenge” (bit.ly/2uXCHwF) and the “Hot Pepper Challenge” (bit.ly/2U56ayR), which involves eating a ridiculously hot ghost pepper, may on the surface seem funny and harmless, but some kids found themselves merely coughing as side effects, others vomited, and some found themselves in the ER.

The “Tide Pod Challenge” seems on its face like a farce, but some took the challenge literally and ingested poisonous cleaning solutions all for the sake of a challenge and an internet post, to the point where PSAs and new product packaging were rolled out to deter and protect against this dangerous challenge (bit.ly/2uYJRRe).

Fire and ice seem to be popular themes in the realm of online challenges. The “Boiling Water Challenge” produced some compelling pictures and videos during the polar vortex of 2019 (bit.ly/2UqriES). Despite the cool visuals, it also sent several people to the hospital with serious burns.

The “Salt and Ice Challenge” (bit.ly/2D6Bibz) encouraged the combination of an ice cube and salt placed directly on the skin and caused second-degree burns in some participants. The “Fire Challenge,” where kids cover their bodies in flammable liquids, set themselves ablaze, and then jump into a pool or a shower, had the consequences you might suspect (bit.ly/2G2Tx2v). Nonetheless, it became viral several years ago.

Are there really challenges out there intended to cause direct harm to their participants? A widely reported hoax, “The Momo Challenge,” featured a sinister character that was supposedly embedded in children’s YouTube cartoons and would tell kids to harm themselves or engage in dangerous behavior or Momo would come and harm them or their families (bit.ly/2WVR4gQ). Although that was debunked, it opened serious questions about how easily this type of content could get to kids and teens and if it’s really out there.

It’s become more widely reported about suicide pacts amongst people who have discussed their plans online, but we are starting to see these pacts show up amongst young people who decide to go so far as to film their deaths to share with their peers and the world. One mother’s story is eye-opening, that there were no signs of this happening to her child (bit.ly/2KpOVZq), and that as parents we rely on peers and others to help us know when things are getting out of control.

Does all of this add up to your child falling prey to a sinister internet challenge each time they are on their device? I don’t think the answer is as incendiary as that, but in reviewing some of the dangerous activities young people are enthusiastically jumping into, it isn’t too far of a leap to see how someone with morbid motivations could really cause widespread harm quickly.

Does all of this add up to your child falling prey to a sinister internet challenge each time they are on their device? I don’t think the answer is as incendiary as that, but in reviewing some of the dangerous activities young people are enthusiastically jumping into, it isn’t too far of a leap to see how someone with morbid motivations could really cause widespread harm quickly.