K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

We’ve been hearing for several years about how the immature adolescent brain can undermine judgment. When it comes to risk, kids lack an adequate braking system. Adolescence is a time of experimentation and exploration. Kids feel powerful and immune to negative consequences. Their bursts of development across the teen years makes them prone to impulsive behaviors. They’re also susceptible to peer influence.

Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that adolescents are vulnerable to mood disorders. Their decision-making brain does not mature until the early to mid-twenties. They need support and guidance. “There’s a real difference between the brains of teenagers and adults… They feel everything so much more intensely.”

Adolescents prefer high-excitement and low-effort activities. They're receptive to dangerous games, risky acts, and social media contagions.

A game that has made the rounds online, for example, is the “salt and ice challenge.” Kids pour salt onto some part of their body before placing an ice cube over the salted area. The goal is to see who can stand the pain the longest, and they post photos of their burns. However, the salt lowers the temperature of the ice, producing numbness and risking third-degree burns and permanent frostbite. The skin thickens and becomes like leather, often losing sensation.

Why do they do it? It’s a dare, a challenge. Others are doing it. Some not only have to rise to the challenge but also be the best. Who sets themselves on fire for fun? You can see kids doing it on Youtube.

The “duct tape challenge” dares teens to get wrapped in duct tape and then proceed to get free. The problem is that the wrapping can be so tight that it causes injury, even brain damage. Some kids doing it alone, following instructions online, have died. Then there's the “knockout game,” in which kids deliver a blow to the head of an unsuspecting person hard enough to knock them unconscious. They post their feats on Youtube.

Also risky are “the cutting challenge” and “the choking game.” The former involves various degrees of self-injury from scissors or knives, while the latter cuts off oxygen to the brain to achieve euphoria (the "good kid's high"). Kids use a belt, leash, or noose, but in groups, it involves strangling each other with bare hands. Those kids who do it alone (the majority) are at greatest risk. They will push themselves to make a noose or belt tighter or keep it tight for longer periods. A CDC study examined 82 deaths related to the choking game and found the average age to be 13, with the youngest age 6. Most were male.   

It’s not clear whether the reports about the Blue Whale game are fake, but supposedly some areas of social media offer this suicide challenge. It’s called the Blue Whale after the idea that some whales deliberately beach themselves. One article says that more than 100 kids in Russia have died, including two girls who jumped off a roof and another who ran in front of a train. Supposedly, other kids filmed these incidents. The game has reportedly spread to other countries.

It allegedly works like this: the game facilitator assigns daily tasks to group members for 50 days. At first, the tasks are fairly benign, requiring such things as watching a horror movie or staying up all night. Eventually, they progress to self-harm. On the 50th day, the facilitator instructs kids (mostly girls, apparently) to do something that will likely end in death, such as jumping from buildings.

One report even has at least two game administrators under arrest for mesmerizing young girls. With fake news sites everywhere, it’s hard to know what to believe, but police in some countries have warned school systems about the game. If it’s a hoax, why bother? Because once something spreads on social media as if it’s real, some kids take it seriously. It might be fake, but some will try it.

Let's not forget Slenderman. Twelve-year-olds Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stabbed Payton Leutner 19 times in 2014 to try to sacrifice her to a fictional Internet character. It was a creepy meme of a faceless man with tentacles and it had spread fast among kids, mostly as a scary story. But these two girls believed that Slenderman was real and that he wanted them to kill their friend.

Even when something is fake, it can pose a danger to impressionable kids, especially if they see YouTube videos showing other kids doing it and having fun.

In addition, there are adults who learn about such games and pose as game administrators to exploit teen interest. They use the games to groom future victims, pretending to be authority figures who hold tantalizing secrets. Kids looking for kicks become willing followers.

Some kids get their thrills from urging others to die. This week, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for her part in her boyfriend’s suicide. In 2014 she had sent a series of texts to Conrad Roy as he ran a generator in his truck until he died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He'd struggled with depression and had made prior attempts. Yet he'd shown signs of ambivalence, so Carter had encouraged him to proceed. "Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself I don't know there's a lot of ways," she'd texted.

At one point, Roy had left the truck, so Carter coldly texted: "You need to do it, Conrad" and "All you have to do is turn the generator on and you will be free and happy." She'd assured him that it was “normal” to feel scared. Later she told a friend that she could have stopped him. But she didn’t. She also did not contact anyone who might have gotten Roy some help. She told another friend, “I heard him dying.”

Unfortunately, Carter's conviction will likely have little impact on other kids, due in part to the feeling of invulnerability that comes with higher levels of risk-taking. The extensive publicity for this case could even inspire copycats.

Another kid was not only intrigued with an unstable girls’ suicide plan, he also wanted to film it. The sixteen-year-old girl decided to commit suicide in Utah, so her friend, Tyerell Przybycien, 18, purchased a rope and an aerosol spray for getting high. Because he was interested in watching someone die, he did nothing to stop her. Instead, he recorded her on his cellphone for ten minutes as she stood on a rock, inhaled from the can, and let the rope asphyxiate her. He even recorded himself checking her to ensure she was dead. When hunters who found the body called police, Przybycien freely told them what he had done.

Earlier, he'd asked a friend what he should do for someone contemplating suicide. When the friend said he should try to talk her out of it, Przybycien had texted: “The thing is i wanna help kill them. it be awesome. seriously im going to help her. Its like getting away with murder! Im so f--ed up. I’m seriously not joking. Its going down in about a week or two.”

Whether it's planking, cutting, burning, or any other challenge, what kids might envision for getting thrills is limited only by their imagination. They look for novelty and are easily influenced by the latest trends and by their need to belong to the in-group. They use these dares to prove themselves and build their self-esteem. They often cannot correctly evaluate the consequences, for themselves or others. Although they're still held responsible if they harm others in the process, they don't think about such consequences.

Fortunately, there are signs for some of this behavior, such as bloodshot eyes, or odd bruises or burns. Parents can educate themselves before their kids go too far. A simple Google search for dangerous social media trends among teenagers will provide some guidance. Mental health experts for children offer lists of red flags. (Example: Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.)

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