TikTok report on dangerous challenges results in a 4 step safety program for users

'What can we do to encourage them to be a bit more critical and take a step back?' says TikTok’s head of safety and public policy for Europe.

Emma Jones 8 minute read December 21, 2021
cartoon girl holding phone

Simply telling teens to avoid TIkTok challenges altogether is not likely to be successful. GETTY

The best way to help children and teenagers safely navigate the world of online trends and challenges is to provide general guidance on how to critically evaluate a topic, rather than specifically addressing controversial challenges, according to new research published by video-sharing app TikTok. 

Online challenges, where users record themselves completing a specific action or dare, come in a variety of different forms, from benign dance moves, to dangerous tricks, to the downright illegal. These viral sensations can be nightmare-inducing for parents, especially when reports kids getting hurt while engaging in the latest trend surface. 

TikTok has released research into addressing dangerous challenges, as well as a ‘safety centre’ with a four-step program which it says will help teens critically think about any challenges they may come into contact with. Accompanying the program is a series of questions teens can ask themselves about the content they are viewing, designed to help them evaluate what it is they’re being asked to do. 

Stop, Think, Decide, Act

“It’s all about trying to put a bit of clear water between see and do,” says Alexandra Evans, TikTok’s head of safety and public policy for Europe. “What can we do to encourage them to be a bit more critical and take a step back? The four-step program is, stop, think, decide and then act.”  

Pre-emptively talking about how to determine if a challenge is safe or not is preferable to focusing on specific challenges, agree experts, which tends to have the unintended consequence of sparking an interest — increasing the risk that kids may check them out online and be enticed to give them a try. 

“We saw this, with [previous] challenges,” says Abby Goldstein, Canada Research Chair in the Psychology of Emerging Adulthood. “Schools were sending out letters [about a specific challenge]. Oftentimes, that level of alarm generates more attention to that specific issue.” 

(Goldstein is not involved in TikTok’s report or development of the safety centre.) 

Tiktok’s safety centre recommends that parents acknowledge there are many fun, safe challenges as well as dangerous ones, putting the emphasis on critically evaluating what can be found online. Simply telling teens to avoid challenges altogether is not likely to be successful, as most on TikTok are lighthearted or seen as “risky” but safe. It can also be difficult to determine if a fairly benign challenge will become harmful in the long term.

TikTok’s recent report recommends encouraging children and teenagers to seek help if they find content distressing, or if they are unsure if a challenge is safe to try. GETTY

The planking challenge seemed safe, at first

One famous challenge, which pre-dates TikTok, had players lying down, face to the ground, body rigid in a straight line. Planking, also called the “lying down game,” quickly became an internet sensation, with kids to adults engaging in the rather obscure practice. The challenge seemed safe and family-friendly at first, until some players — eager to outdo each other — began planking in increasingly dangerous areas, like balcony railings and on top of moving vehicles. Since then, multiple serious injuries and at least one death has been attributed to the planking challenge. 

Let your kid lead the way

Ongoing conversations with kids and teenagers about TikTok and other digital platforms can help gauge if they are aware of specific videos that could be harmful. Evans recommends adopting a kid-led approach, addressing specific challenges if they are already aware of them. 

“At that point, it’s really good to then use it as a case study,” says Evans. “You can say: what could you imagine would go wrong in that situation? How? Why did that cause problems? Was that foreseeable? Have you seen others do something similar?” 

The report also recommends encouraging children and teenagers to seek help if they find any content they see online distressing, or if they are unsure if a challenge is safe to try. 

Warning about “hoax” challenges more harmful than good

Adjacent to the more mainstream challenges seen online are the insidious “hoax” challenges, where videos claim that a supernatural entity is directing children to carry out increasingly harmful behaviours “ending in self-harm or suicide,” according to the report by TikTok.

The purpose of these challenges is to spread fear among target audiences — typically those that are younger. Kids exposed to these videos may be compelled to “warn” others about the hoax, increasing its reach. Evans says that, because of this, hoax challenges often have more views and a longer staying power than other trends. 

Panic-driven sharing

“It leads to a significant amount of sharing which ends up, as we’ve seen from the research, fuelling fear and harm,” says Evans. “… there [is] a lot of panic-driven sharing happening between parents and also between teachers and parents, and that kind of sharing is not protective. It actually fuels awareness and really heightens the mental health impact of those hoaxes.” 

A case study conducted by the South West Grid for Learning, found Google search trends on school computers (thought to be primarily used by children) for a widely discussed hoax challenge peaked shortly after a press release by the Police Service of Northern Ireland sparked intense media coverage. As public sentiment moved to understanding and represent this challenge as a hoax, search trends began to drop off.

Evans explains that 66 per cent of children interviewed for the report said they found these hoaxes distressing. Most vulnerable to these hoaxes are children who are already dealing with low emotional states offline, who may be drawn to outlets encouraging self-harm. 

TikTok has already committed to pulling down these hoaxes, but now Evans says it is also removing videos that claim to “warn” about hoaxes without specifically identifying it as fake. 

“Obviously, we have never allowed those on our platform, and we moderate them aggressively,” she says. “But now, if you warn about a suicide self-harm hoax but your warning is based on the premise that it’s true…we will also act against that, because we don’t want to be accidentally allowing content that is actually causing the potential for harm.”

What draws kids to these challenges?

Teens who are interested in challenges report a variety of reasons why, but one of the top ones is the need for recognition and acceptance. When peers participate in a challenge, either together or separately, there is a bonding opportunity – valuable at an age when kids are looking to fit in. Excelling at a challenge, or pulling off something risky, also generates attention and stands to increase a teen’s social capital in a demanding and rapidly changing world. 

“Just the nature of adolescence is that it’s a time of increased risk-taking,” says Goldstein. “The way the adolescent brain works is that it tends to really downplay negative consequences and look towards reward…The extent to which social media fame has come to rise; there’s an opportunity to be seen and to garner additional attention. For some teens, that’s important.”  

Chris Vollum, president of CMV SocialMedia, a company focused on delivering digital safety workshops, agrees.

“The riskier, more over-the-top and rewarding a challenge can be, the greater the recognition, which is the ultimate objective in our Like-addled world today,” says Vollum by email. “Forget the fact that such a challenge can get you injured, killed or expelled from school — it’s the nature and the dare that the challenge represents that is the sole focus.” 

Kids excluded from social groups offline also appear to be more vulnerable to the lure of social acceptance through risky challenges, according to a panel assembled by the TikTok safety centre and evaluated in their report. The likes and comments on online platforms provide the positive connections that might be missing offline – not to mention that becoming digitally famous can translate positively to the offline world. 

‘The riskier, more over-the-top and rewarding a challenge can be, the greater the recognition, which is the ultimate objective in our Like-addled world today,” says Chris Vollum, president of CMV SocialMedia, a company focused on delivering digital safety workshops. GETTY

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous desire of “going viral,” only a minority of children participate in challenges at all, says Evans. Even then, only a minority of that group will try out a challenge that segues towards dangerous. 

Parents encouraged to get on the platform 

Understanding the trends and conversations happening online is an important aspect to helping teens navigate these challenges, experts agree.  

“It’s important for parents to be aware of what their teens are doing online,” says Goldstein. “…really be prepared to have open and non-judgmental conversations with their teens about these issues. Things like having their teen walk them through their account or expressing interest in what their teen is following or doing online.” 

Vollum recommends taking things a step further and connecting with the popular platforms to develop a close understanding of how it works. 

“For parents to help their kids navigate this topic, they [parents] have to become digitally fluent with TikTok and other platforms,” he writes. “….When I read the TikTok suggestion for parents and educators to be able to recognize risky challenges and then have conversations with their kids about them — that would be good if parents and other adults even knew what a challenge was or how to access its origin and purpose.” 

These conversations also need to start with the young.

“We certainly know that there are going to be kids much younger than 14 or 13 who are using social media,” says Goldstein. “If we just pretend that they’re not on social media and don’t talk to the ways in which we are supporting their healthy use of it, then we’re not doing anyone a service.” 

Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Twitter @jonesyjourn