Everything you need to know about TikTok and YouTube challenges that start online and leak into the classroom.
From cooking chicken with NyQuil, to kicking people's feet out from under them, or eating cereal out of someone else's mouth, social media challenges range from eyebrow-raising to just plain baffling—and sometimes legitimately dangerous. It begs the question: Why? Why do people do them at all? Beyond that, how do we stay on top of them and keep students safe when they're literally being dared to do stupid and potentially harmful things?
When it comes to staying on top of them, it can be nearly impossible. And there's really no way to predict what will be next. But stay tuned below to get a window into the most viral challenges and trends, and keep reading to learn how to handle these social media stunts.
The "Blackout Challenge" has been in the news again, and it can involve kids choking each other, holding their breath, or using something to choke themselves. And, though not widely publicized, many teachers report students moaning in a sexual way during class. It's often timed with a specific word the teacher says, but sometimes it just seems to be random.
"Chroming" involves inhaling toxic chemicals to become intoxicated.
The "One Chip Challenge" involves eating one extremely spice Pacqui chip on camera, which has been connected to illness and even death.
The "BORG Challenge" stands for "Blackout rage gallon" and involves filling a gallon jug with alcohol of some kind and drinking it quickly. It primarily centers around colleges, but may trickle down.
Use these questions to help you find the information you need:
- What are online/social media challenges?
- Why do students participate in online/social media challenges?
- What are some examples? Are they always bad or harmful?
- Are they always real?
- Are they always "challenges," or can they take other forms?
- Do they only happen on TikTok and YouTube?
- How do they affect the classroom?
- What can I say to students about them?
- Are there any digital citizenship resources that might help?
What are online/social media challenges?
Online/social media challenges are viral trends that encourage users to copy a stunt or behavior, from dances to risky dares and everything in between. It's hard to predict what challenges will become widespread, but once they catch on, hundreds of thousands of people—or even more—may participate. Challenges are usually started by social media users and not the platforms themselves.
Why do students participate in online/social media challenges?
The bottom line is this: It's human nature—especially for teens—to seek acceptance and fit in, so social media challenges offer opportunities for young people to achieve a sense of belonging. Since many young people's social lives are centered online, it's unsurprising that students will want to participate in challenges with their on- and offline friends. Also, teens are developmentally prone to risk-taking, and doing outrageous or silly things can achieve that goal. After all, plenty of young people gauge acceptance by how many likes or hearts they receive from any given post. Completing challenges is one way to not only fit in, but to stand out on their favorite platform.
Some students may also want to imitate popular vloggers and influencers, who often jump-start challenges with their own participation. For example, the wildly popular TikTok star and influencer Charli D'Amelio helped spread the viral "Renegade" dance challenge by performing the routine in 2020, which fueled countless imitators. There was also controversy surrounding this challenge, since the creator of the dance did not originally receive credit, but that's a separate issue about the origin and spread of challenges!
What are some examples? Are they always bad or harmful?
There are countless examples of challenges that have spawned thousands of imitators. Some are positive, but more often they're just a bit fun and, well, pointless. There are tons of examples around eating or drinking—cinnamon, hot peppers, and so forth—which can be neutral or cause pain and discomfort. More rarely, they can be truly harmful—even deadly. Here are just a few examples across the spectrum:
- The Ice Bucket Challenge became a sensation and led to greater awareness of ALS while helping to raise over $100 million, leading to funding of extensive drug trials and research.
- Fitness challenges like "Push-Ups of Your Age" or "Push Up and Plank" have motivated thousands of people to imitate challenging exercise moves. This type of challenge became especially popular during the early throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Viral dance challenges are numerous and very popular, and they are constantly emerging and being repackaged. Many professional dancers have joined the fun as well!
- "The Fruit Roll-Up Challenge" is one of many food-related challenges. Some are about eating quickly, and others are about eating something unconventional or hard to complete, like the "Saltine Challenge."
- The "Tide Pod Challenge" prompted people to eat detergent capsules. No-brainer here: They aren't safe to ingest.
- The "Milk Crate Challenge" spurred participants to stack milk crates into an unstable pyramid, then attempt to climb up and down on the wobbly structure. Many people have been seriously injured attempting this challenge, which led to TikTok banning the challenge.
- The "Blackout Challenge" has been around since at least 2008, and users are encouraged to hold their breath until they pass out. Tragically, this challenge has been linked to a number of accidental deaths, and it periodically makes a resurgence.
Are challenges always real?
Some social media challenges get a lot of press attention, though the origins are questionable and often based on a hoax. For example, the New York Times reported in fall 2022 on the "Porcelain" challenge, which, on the surface, seemed to be a stunt with participants grinding up porcelain dishes into a powder and snorting it like cocaine. In reality, this challenge was started by internet comedian Sebastian Durfee, who created this "challenge" as commentary on the way challenges spread online. TikTok ultimately removed Durfee's account, but not before the hashtag #PorcelainChallenge received millions of views.
Another example of a fictitious or "hoax" challenge is the mysterious "Blue Whale Challenge." This challenge is a supposed "suicide game," during which participants complete one task a day—which start off as mundane things—for fifty days, with the last day culminating in suicide. This is obviously a serious matter, but digging into the origins and actual impact reveals that there are no concrete examples of kids actually participating. The trap with a challenge like this one is that we, of course, don't want to diminish the implications or risks associated with something like the Blue Whale Challenge, and it's understandable why it causes adults to panic. So, even though it's not "real," it becomes real enough that we can't ignore it.
Are they always "challenges," or can they take other forms?
Some of the viral social media trends aren't physical or mental challenges, but rather like a meme come to life. For instance, it's not a physical or mental challenge to take a picture or video of a pet wearing a costume. Other types of "non-" challenges include group-think actions like the trend of students moaning when a teacher says a certain word. There are also trends that tap into body image insecurities, like mewing (changing the position of your tongue in the hopes of getting a more defined jawline) and gum chewing or body checking (fixating on weight or certain parts of the body).
Years ago, there was something called Momo that was a frightening image of a creature that kept popping up on social media. There was a supposed "challenge" linked to it, but mostly it was a meme with sketchy origins, until the artist and gallery associated with the sculpture were finally joined to the image itself.
And while there's sometimes a fine line between conspiracy theories and viral moral panics, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s—before social media —is one example of how a generalized fear can manifest around an unsubstantiated threat. More recently, theories about the Astroworld tragedy included references to demons and Satan that got some online traction. These groupthink memes are offshoots of challenges in that they can take hold of kid/teen culture and spread widely.
Do they only happen on TikTok or YouTube?
Social media challenges emerge from wherever kids are spending time online, and they tend to spawn on the most popular platforms of the moment. YouTube has been a popular site for years, but the ease of creating, sharing, and interacting on TikTok seems to be the perfect recipe for teens—and others—to engage in viral activities.
How do they affect the classroom?
Often, these phenomena don't directly affect school. While the latest viral challenge may be in the forefront of many students' minds, this doesn't mean they will directly affect your classroom instruction. Unfortunately, some challenges are school-specific, like the moaning meme mentioned above, and "Devious Licks," which emerged in the fall of 2021 and created a spate of vandalism in schools. Even more unfortunately, there was a lot of publicity around the "Slap a Teacher" challenge, which was likely a hoax. Of course, the simple fact that the hoax was floating around affected schools. Most challenges occur outside of the classroom, but if kids have access to their phones in school, it's unsurprising that some challenges will affect teaching and learning. And if they're popular enough, your students will be talking about them.
What can I say to students about them?
While it might be tempting to dismiss or ignore social media challenges, it's probably best to take a position of curiosity and inquiry with students. After all, the draw of challenges has a real-world impact on their behavior—which may be positive or negative. Plus, they're a ripe opportunity to talk about media literacy! Consider discussing the following questions:
- Are they always real? Do we hear about "challenges" or panics that aren't real?
- Why do you think challenges go viral?
- Have you participated in any challenges? Why? What motivated you?
- Are there any instances of positive challenges? What can they accomplish?
- What do you think should happen when challenges impact schools or classrooms?
- How do you discern whether a challenge is real or a hoax?
- What are you curious about when it comes to online challenges?
- Were there challenges or moral panics before social media? (You might also consider exploring some historic parallels of risky or "viral" behavior, like going down Niagara Falls in a barrel.)
Are there any resources that might help?
Here's an article we contributed to with some tips for addressing social media challenges if they're disruptive to your classroom and or the greater school community. And if you just want to stay up on memes, there's always Know Your Meme (because of mature content, it's best to peruse at home!). To help students deal with and learn about positively handling online challenges, you can use one of our lessons:
- Social Media and Digital Footprints: This lesson explores how using social media affects our digital footprints.
- Who's Looking at Your Digital Footprint?: Get students thinking about who might see that video down the road with this lesson.
- The Power of Digital Footprints: Use this lesson to convey how there truly can be consequences to the things we post.
- Take a Stand: Educator Guide: This classroom thinking and discussion protocol can be used with a variety of hypothetical and real digital dilemmas and situations.
- Help Kids Navigate Viral Social Media Stunts: Pass this guide along to families or use it yourself!