A 12-year-old turns herself into a fireball, because it “seemed like fun”. She is by no means the first child to have been severely injured while trying the YouTube #FireChallenge. The question is why the challenge, which began around 2012, has been red-flagged only now?
A host of sinister hashtags float around the internet like bait, lying in wait for vulnerable adolescents. Toxicologists are appalled by the Tide Pod Challenge, which involves ingesting detergent and the Cinnamon Challenge, in which the player swallows a spoonful of spice. The Salt and Ice Challenge is a dermatologist’s nightmare, causing skin lesions and burns. The lethal Blue Whale Challege is a suicide game that has claimed dozens of young lives, including some in India. Last year, India had the distinction of the highest number of searches related to the Blue Whale challenge worldwide.
Even the seemingly benign Ice Bucket Challege — dousing yourself in ice-water — and the Kiki Challenge — jumping out of a moving car and breaking into a dance — carry a degree of risk. The one thing the hashtags have in common is glamourising reckless behaviour.
Children are copycats; they are hard-wired to acquire social skills through imitation behaviour. Adults and older siblings at home and in school are their initial role models but in adolescence, the peer group becomes all-important. ‘Friends’ who indulge in reckless behaviour put the child’s emotional and physical well-being at risk.
The teenage years are a critical stage of identity formation. Plastic adolescent minds are rebooting and decision-making abilities are compromised. At the same time, they have to deal with the social
hierarchy of adolescent peer groups, which can be cruel and unforgiving. To enhance her social status, a teenager may indulge in attention-seeking behaviour. She might want to be seen as ‘bad-ass’ — daring, fearless and willing to flirt with danger. Obviously, children who fear social isolation and the dreaded ‘loner’ tag, are most likely to show signs of self-harming or thrill-seeking behaviour.
The emotional turmoil of navigating the thorny path to adulthood renders adolescents vulnerable to toxic internet games, fetish content and dangerous YouTube challenges. The more time they spend online, the more likely they are to be drawn in.
The Internet is a world without borders and post-millenials are its naturalised citizens. For their parents, it is a scary place where sexual predators, fraudsters and mind-snatchers lurk in the shadows. Like the frontier world captured in Hollywood westerns, its rules are elastic and the civilising force of law enforcement is yet to catch up. Governments and parents are struggling to police the Internet and passing the buck to each other.
Monitoring an adolescent’s online existence is difficult and keeping her off the Internet is not only impossible but undesirable. Many post-millenials are practically cyborgs, seamlessly connected to a cyber-world that has its own language and social norms. Online and offline personas have coalesced to the point where having a virtual self is proof of existence. Deleting social media accounts is referred to as ‘virtual suicide’. There’s a special software that allows you to do it and a debate raging on whether killing your online self should be made illegal!
How do parents cope with the threat of dangerous web content? Various mechanisms have been suggested but the one that is universally acclaimed as the most effective is analogue communication. Parents often do not caution their children against the dangers of the Internet either because they don’t know enough about it and simply can’t imagine that the harmless-looking iPhone can be a source of terror, or because they find the whole subject alien and uncomfortable.
Parents are accustomed to drawing boundaries for their teenagers in real life, but realise how much harder it is to do so in the virtual world. The best they can do is to reinforce the message of responsible behaviour. Intellectually, your daughter already knows that a sexy picture or provocative text posted online could be there forever, just like that tattoo she wants to get. It is for the parent to point out the long-term consequences of indiscreet posts.
When children are encouraged to talk about their online lives — the number of instagram followers, the ideal selfie, the gender justice post, a debate over a political science lesson, or girl drama over relative popularity — hints of cyber-bullying and mind-manipulation may surface. An alert parent can follow that lead, get to the heart of the matter and determine what kind of intervention is needed. A frank discussion on the ‘deep web’ or ‘dark web’ — hidden from regular search engines — may be a good idea.
Parents may not be able to stay one jump ahead of teenage trends, but they can encourage their children to exercise critical thinking rather than jump into a ‘bi-stupid’ challenge.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.
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