Would you dare to pour a bucket of ice water over yourself? And pinching your cheekbones on camera until a bruise comes out? Would you lick toilet seats just to show what you’re capable of?
The presence on social networks of challenges that encourage users to take certain risks and share images is so common that minors are very familiar with them . These viral contents combine two fundamental ingredients: entertainment and socialization.
These are fleeting and audiovisual content. They promote a type of entertainment that is only required to provide a good time. This favors a generally uncritical attitude that entails ignorance of its meaning or consequences.
Platforms like TikTok are particularly fertile for this content. And their consumption patterns do not help with reflection either: the content is presented in a very brief and dynamic way, the result of a well-trained algorithm.
When it comes to viral challenges, minors pay little attention to the context of the content they are going to replicate and disseminate. It is common to hear them say that “it is just a game” that is played in a group and that they incorporate into their leisure activities. We have verified this in our recent research among adolescents aged 11 to 17 in Spain.
Many viral challenges encourage replicating choreographies that become fashionable. The one about symmetry, for example, invites the user to record themselves with a filter that allows them to see your face with both sides perfectly equal. Or the plank challenge, which posed the challenge of doing abs for 30 days, recording it and sharing it.
Not just entertainment
It is important to highlight that the meaning of challenges is not always mere entertainment. They can also be used in misinformative narratives, for purposes beyond the recreational, a reality that minors are not aware of either.
The challenges are not a recent phenomenon. One of the most memorable and positive examples of this type of content is the Ice Bucket Challenge . In that action, people were encouraged to throw a bucket of ice water over themselves, record it and share it on social networks. In addition to record participation, many celebrities and hundreds of individuals donated to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research.
However, when asking some of the minors who were aware of this challenge in the aforementioned research if they knew the reason why they poured a bucket of ice water over their heads, many stated that they were not aware of its origin or its meaning. They simply saw it as an entertaining and trending action on the Internet.
More risk, more spectacle, more ‘likes’
According to our survey, the criteria by which minors choose the challenges in which they participate are two: how entertaining it is and how much it matches their skills and competencies. The excessive interest in the content achieving greater acceptance among their peers can push them to devise alternative versions to climb the “difficulty scale” that they directly associate with a greater number of views and ‘likes’.
To do this, they look for ingredients that turn their contribution into something more original, colorful and impressive. And we must not forget that the challenge is entertainment content about something that is extremely topical, and therefore ephemeral. This makes it difficult to respond to the danger that a specific challenge may pose, which appears and disappears quickly.
But how to make the challenges more striking? Boys and girls – to a greater extent – link the completion of challenges with a certain degree of danger, the price of gaining followers and views. They conceive risk as a necessary and justified element to give the content spectacularity, which translates into a greater number of reproductions.
In this context, dangerous is synonymous with colorful and impressive. Minors tend to relativize the risk in favor of spectacle and virality. Likewise, danger adds to the challenge by proposing and innovating with more daring ideas that will enhance participation.
Pressure not to be left out
Sometimes, minors feel they have a certain social pressure to have to take on the challenge to “not be left out.” It is common for some to nominate others on social networks to carry out the challenge . This can intensify their feeling of belonging to a group, but also the need for external validation. In any case, it does little to help a slow reflection of the implications that executing and sharing the challenge may have.
Although this content is a hobby for minors, it is clear that it contains risks of which they are not aware. Furthermore, there is no system to classify this type of content by age, which does exist in other formats (video games, movies, series…).
This makes your critical capacity key to confronting this type of digital narratives. To help them acquire it, it is good to provoke conversations in which they talk about the content they consume and share. In this framework, ideally trustworthy, arguments can be provided that help them reflect. Talking to them about the consequences of assuming risky behaviors is also necessary.
Author Bios: Beatriz Feijoo is Professor of Advertising at the Faculty of Business and Communication at UNIR – International University of La Rioja and Charo Sádaba Chalezquer is Professor, Department of Marketing and Communication Companies at the University of Navarra