TikTok, a social media platform where users share short videos, is being blamed for a dangerous trend: health “challenges.”
“We’ve seen it over the past couple of years. It kind of comes in waves with different challenges and things that bring kids to the hospital,” says Dr. Jenna Wheeler, a fellowship-trained pediatric critical care physician with Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
From the “Benadryl challenge,” which encourages kids to take the medication to get high, to the “blackout challenge,” where users hold their breath until they pass out, the unsafe pranks are sending teens and young adults to the hospital.
“They are looking for affirmation – sometimes they are bored, sometimes they want recognition,” Dr. Wheeler says. “They are so caught up in the [number of] likes. ‘You’re so cool. How many likes do you have?’”
Originally a way for “creators” to share music and dance moves, TikTok has grown in popularity over the past few years. As the number of users on the site has grown, so have the risky challenges.
As a critical-care physician, Dr. Wheeler sees the consequences of worst-case scenarios. Urgent-care and orthopedic doctors are the ones treating many of the kids whose challenges went awry.
Dr. Wheeler cites sprains and broken bones from the “milk crate challenge” as one example. But physical injury isn’t the only consequence of these challenges.
For the “sexy silhouette challenge,” kids — mostly younger girls — snap a posed selfie and then apply a filter to make the image a silhouette and then share it on TikTok and other social media platforms.
“But what they don’t realize is, as easy as it is for you and I to take a picture and put a filter on it, it’s just as easy for someone else to take that filter off,” Dr. Wheeler says. “Then there are nude or immodest pictures of them. And they are horrified to know they are out there on the internet for everybody to see. They thought it was safe because they put a filter on it.”
The scientific community has taken note, and research studies about the various effects of social media are ongoing. Dr. Wheeler already knows that peer pressure and bullying has ramped up anxiety levels among teens and young adults.
In a 2021 study of TikTok’s effects on anorexia and non-suicidal self-injury, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that even videos intended to help people with eating disorders can have the opposite effect, paving the way for unhealthy behaviors.
So what can parents do? Dr. Wheeler has some advice.
“Don’t be afraid to put restrictions,” she says. “Sit down with your kids and talk about social media. Decide what is appropriate. Tell them, ‘You are welcome to the site, but I have access to your history.’ It gives a level of accountability.”