Social media trends create dangerous environment for teens

When it comes to getting attention quickly these days, most teens turn to social media to get their daily dose of positive comments from their peers. But what happens when social media users go from posting simple content—such as a photo of the meal they had that day or a selfie—to posting a video of them lighting themselves on fire for a few social media likes?

This is exactly what happened to teenage participants who took part in the “Fire Challenge.” The challenge, started by YouTube user 1BlazinEagle1, was simple and self-destructive: Douse yourself in gasoline, set a match, and see what happens next.

Though the initial challenge only involved setting body hair on fire, the dangerous undertaking quickly escalated to teens setting themselves entirely ablaze. One particular video that caused controversy was of teenager Krishon Hammons setting himself on fire in a bathtub. Afterwards, painful screaming could be heard as he tried desperately to put out the fire.

After incidents like Hammons’, various photos of teens with critical third-degree burns could be found online, specifically as a result of the Fire Challenge.

One question presents itself about absurd crazes like this: Why are people willing to do things like this for a few seconds of attention on social media?

In an ABC news report, psychologist Harry Stratyner says that teens partake in these actions in order to feel validated by the “social media hype.”

“To have it filmed on YouTube is a cry for help,” Stratyner says. “Everyone wants you to know their name, even if it could cost them their lives.”

In a discussion about addiction, CHS counselor Lauren Capano explains that addiction can drastically change student behaviors over time.

“The brain goes through a process called ‘pruning,’” Capano says. “Teenagers start to get used to things that they do every day—whether that’s going online or more drastic things like taking drugs.”

Capano, who got her Master’s degree in social work at New York University, says it’s easy for teens to get quickly addicted to social media due to its accessibility.

In her documentary “Screenagers,” Dr. Delaney Ruston explains that the willingness to do anything for a brief spot of fame is a high that’s triggered by dopamine in the brain, a hormone which also causes the positive reaction people feel when they eat sugar or take drugs and alcohol. The dopamine levels in the teenage brain see a sharp increase, and this biological need to be stimulated—whether it be from food, fun, or social media likes—overpowers teenagers’ ability to perform rational thought.

While the teenage brain is always looking to seek new experiences, teens don’t have enough development in their brains to make rational decisions at all times. The National Institutes of Health report that accidental deaths see a sharp increase during adolescence. This study also states that teens aged 15 to 19 are six times as likely to die under these circumstances compared to those aged 10 to 14.

While this form of attention-seeking may not always be as severe as teenagers dousing themselves in gasoline for a few minutes of fame, many social media users, especially within the makeup community, find themselves in a constant race to outdo each other in order to find the most bizarre way to apply their makeup for a brief moment of social media stardom, with hopes of eventually starting a greater trend.

The Cinnamon Challenge, another ridiculous phenomenon that swept social media, found many participants in trouble after they were advised to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon without the aid of water. The New York Times reports that the practice has been warned against by various doctors, who cite that humans can’t produce enough saliva to sustain the amount of cinnamon being forced down their throat.

“People are being poisoned and sickened because of this,” says Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz in a New York Times interview. “We saw a rise in calls to poison control centers around the United States that mirrored the rise in YouTube videos and their viewing. And that’s just for the acute issues.”

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has found that roughly 92 percent of teens go online regularly, a large audience in front of which some teens choose to exploit themselves.

A study done by Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Research Center reveals that a constant need to one-up one another has become a rampant phenomenon on social media. Roughly 40 percent of teenagers say that they feel pressured to post on social media regularly in order to keep up appearances and to give their life the most fascinating look possible.

“In social media, it’s never actually how your real life is,” freshman Yvonne DiGirolamo says. “I try not to feel that pressure, but there’s a whole aesthetic that you’re trying to create, so there’s definitely a pressure to make it look like you’re doing interesting things in your life.”

While the teenage pursuit to make life on social media appear to be the most interesting life possible seems endless, it’s important for students to remember that there is life after social media.

-Kylie Yeatman