When you were a child, I’m sure most of you have asked your parents for something and, in response to a “no”, have then proceeded to tell them that all your friends are doing/have it. Many great parents will probably have countered with a silly rhetorical question, something along the lines of, “If your friends jumped over a cliff, would you follow them?” Being a victim of this absurd logical jump during my formative years, I had never been a fan of these types of arguments that defied logic and surpassed the ridiculous. However, recently, I began to notice the insightful and prophetic message hidden beneath the rhetorical question our parents have been using to dissuade us from following our cool friends.
The rise of viral video challenges on the internet (usually on the video-sharing platform YouTube, named after its previous owner company) over the past decade has generated much fun, some good, and a whole lot of bad. The Mannequin Challenge, in which a person takes a video of people staying absolutely still in the middle of an action-packed scene, is light-hearted to watch and enjoyable to all those involved. The Hobby Lobby Challenge, in which people take studio-level close-up photos in humble and sharply contrasting places like a fake-flower stand at a Hobby Lobby shop, is also a humorous and good-natured bit of fun. Some philanthropic challenges went viral too, such as the famous Ice Bucket Challenge for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which challenged people to either take a video of dumping a bucket of ice water over themselves or donate a certain amount of money (generally 100 USD) to an ALS foundation, usually within a given time frame of 24 hours upon getting tagged by someone who had already done the deed on social media. Celebrities and well-known figures joining in the challenge helped promote the cause even more.
While this culture of viral video challenges has undoubtedly done some good in the world, there is a trend within the phenomenon that seems to serve no other purpose than to cause mayhem, violence, and harm. From the Cinnamon, Condom, Salt and Ice, and Eraser Challenges to the more recent Tide POD and Hot Coil Challenges, this near-decade-long line of dangerous dares that does not seem to stop indicates not only the inherent susceptibility of human beings in general, but also the human nature of experiencing pleasure at watching someone in discomfort or pain. This idea is not new at all; funny home videos or home video fails are still entertaining to many people. Some humans simply like to take on unnecessary risks for the adrenaline spike or the number of views on their channel, while others enjoy watching the process and results of those risky activities. Combined with an immensely convenient and addictive video-viewing platform, the challenge culture has become a dominant force in entertainment. But while on the surface this phenomenon looks harmless, the casualties are mainly children; they are easy to manipulate, too young to understand the risks completely, and unable to deal with much of the damage that follows.
Young adults and children form the generation that tunes in to these viral videos, making the phenomenon a part of pop culture. Perennial games like “Truth or Dare” reveal the competitive and intrepid nature of immature humans, and these challenges are simply an extension of such activities. Of course peer pressure cannot be excluded from this discussion as it is the primary driving force that allows challenges to successfully grow and spread among these youngsters. So the question “If your friends jumped over a cliff, would you follow them?” becomes less silly when posed to a kid now. A kid that gives in to peer pressure or intrepidly follows a “challenge” trend at school today may actually end up losing their life. It is difficult to present a solution to issues such as these where technology, culture, and human nature meet at an unfortunate crossroad. However, this is a transitionary period for the advancement of personal handheld devices. Our laws and social norms have not yet adjusted to the speed at which science evolves and impacts our lives, but we will adapt quickly. It’s how nature works. We just have to minimize our casualties along the way.
On a more cynical note, perhaps the consumption of Tide PODs and large amounts of cinnamon powder and burning oneself on a hot coil/stove are all coping mechanisms to the Trump presidency and the school shootings in the US. Or maybe they are severe indictments of the American education system; after all, US Senator Chuck Schumer said, “... I saw one [Tide POD] on my staffer’s desk and I wanted to eat it.” But maybe, just maybe, it’s just natural selection at work.