The Brief: Internet challenges can be entertaining, absurd, dangerous, and tools for positive change. What they have in common is how they combine elements of active participation and online sharing.

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DEEP DIVE

It seems that almost every week, a new viral internet challenge takes over the internet. Whether it’s on TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, these challenges often bring online communications into an offline sphere where people execute challenges IRL to then post on social media. 

Similar challenges have existed before social media as young people used dares and contests to do sometimes ridiculous things ranging from mundane to dangerous. What’s unique with social media and internet challenges is how they stem from internet memes and then lead to real-life actions. In cases such as the #TenYearChallenge or #FeelingCuteChallenge, however, the challenge solely exists online, prompting people to participate by posting something to social media. Internet challenges continue to pop up as viral phenomena because of the way they ‘challenge’ everyone who encounters the meme to participate, thus spreading it further and further.

‘Dangerous’ Challenges

Some internet challenges are well-known because of their shock-value. Oftentimes, it’s the dangerous or at least dangerous-sounding challenges that get the most press. While a potentially harmful internet trend should be taken seriously, especially when children are involved, the risks some of these so-called challenges are often blown out of proportion. In the case of Tide Pod Challenge for example, while a few people were actually inspired to consume detergent pods, the trend was largely a hoax. Most of the posts on social media about the challenge were making fun of the absurdity of eating detergent pods and even many of the videos that showed people consuming them cut off before they would have swallowed a laundry pod.

When almost everything seems to be cloaked in layers of irony, it is difficult to discern what may be a serious issue versus mere meme. In the case of the Shell-On Challenge, there was a disproportionately high amount of media coverage of the challenge compared to the relatively few recorded instances of teenagers partaking in it.

News of the Momo challenge was particularly concerning because it relates to suicide and self-harm. The serious subject matter associated with the challenge along with the disturbing image it’s been paired with inspired shock and fear. In spite of all this, there have been no confirmed cases of deaths or injury related to the challenge. The most recent public panic around the challenge occurred years after its original debut when Kim Kardashian posted about it on her Instagram. Suicide, self-harm, and stranger danger are serious issues on their own, but the hysteria around the Momo challenge demonstrates how news and social media coverage of internet challenges can make something obscure and unconfirmed seem like a more pressing and widespread issue than it may really be.

How To Mitigate Risks

A recent French study surveyed 1,800 middle schoolers about the infamous asphyxiation-based ‘choking game.’ In this study, researches found an association between children who were depressed or who have a conduct disorder and participation in this dangerous ‘game.’ The indication that children with psychological disorders may be particularly at-risk for such risky behaviors stresses the importance of mental healthcare for children and open dialogues within families about psychological wellbeing.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s advisable for parents to stay generally informed about the latest internet challenges. While controversial challenges are not always as dangerous as they may seem, it’s still important for parents to talk to their children about these potential risks. In addition, parents and children should discuss internet safety and privacy practices as well as general common sense when it comes to partaking in risky activities, especially when peer pressure is involved.

The Golden Age Of TikTok Challenges

Part of TikTok’s success as a meme-making machine can be attributed to the virality of the memes and challenges that begin and/or spread on the platform. By making a meme into a ‘challenge,’ users are inspired to create their own version of the meme and further perpetuate a viral challenge. TikTok’s #YeeHawChallenge famously contributed to the massive success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” exemplifying the power of internet challenges and memes outside of the realm of social media. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance’s ability to profit off of its popular meme challenges could play a key role in building revenue streams. 

Dance Challenges

Today, dance challenges and moves like the #InMyFeelingsChallenge, Beyonce’s #BeforeILetGoChallenge, and #HitTheWoah encourage people to try to replicate moves developed by musicians and dancers. This follows more old-school dance challenges and moves performed at concerts, on dance floors, in music videos, and described through in-song instructions. Today, these challenges can be created by a song’s artist, or by an amateur whose moves go viral on social media.

Internet Challenges For Social Good

Notably, several internet challenges such as the #Trashtag challenge coincide with activism and awareness about pressing issues. In the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, celebrities and average joes dumped buckets of freezing water on their heads to encourage people to donate money for ALS research. In addition to the fact that it’s for a good cause, this challenge went so viral because it tasked people to directly nominate or “challenge” their friends to participate. Social justice and activism based campaigns demonstrate how something as silly as pouring ice water over one’s head can be harnessed into a meme set to make positive change.

Miscellaneous Challenges

Why Do Internet Challenges Go Viral?

It’s not always clear why an internet challenge goes viral. As they can exist in a variety of forms and across different social media platforms, every individual challenge is different. What they have in common is how they specifically prompt people to do things and then share the evidence online. The popular tendency to call almost any internet meme or hoax a ‘challenge’ can be misleading, especially when it arouses unnecessary concern. Recognizing when a challenge is being sensationalized or exaggerated can help in understanding their significance or lack thereof.

While many internet challenges will seem absurd and pointless to those who didn’t grow up in a culture where they’re so prominent, they can still have notable effects both online and off. As memes crossover into ‘real life,’ affecting people’s actions and even creating movements, the power of memes, and of understanding them can’t be underestimated.

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