Risk vs reward: The Story of YouTube Challenges

The psychology behind completing risky internet challenges

If you have watched the news recently, viewed social media, listened to the radio or read a newspaper, you probably have seen the latest headlines of a teenage boy who required major surgery for a serious head injury after taking part in a “YouTube Challenge.”

Many popular news outlets such as CNN and Buzzfeed reported Skylar Fish fell and fractured his eye socket after playing “The Duct Tape Challenge.” The challenge is a popular YouTube “game” where participants are duct taped to a chair or another object and must escape. Teenagers often film themselves and their friends participating in the game and then upload the video to YouTube.

In Skylar’s case, the game had serious consequences considering he was duct taped while still standing. Now recovering from his injuries, Skylar and his mom are warning others about the dangers regarding popular online challenges. Frightening on many levels, the duct tape challenge is not the most dangerous challenge teenagers can undertake as a “game.”

The Washington Post composed a list of what they considered to be the most dangerous challenges teenagers often film and then post. Some of the most notable included:

1. The Fire Challenge: Where participants douse part of their body in rubbing alcohol before lighting themselves on fire. The object is to douse the fire as quickly as possible. The dangerous elements are obvious: third degree burns, setting your house on fire and death.

2. The Salt and Ice Challenge: This challenge instructs the participant to pour salt on their skin and then place an ice cube on top of the salt. The goal is to see how long one can endure the pain. Simple science will tell you ice and salt causes the ice to drop below water’s freezing temperature creating a super cold reaction, which results in third degree burns and possible amputation if the ice remains on the skin for an extended period.

Perhaps the most deadly challenge is The Choking Challenge, where young teenagers choke themselves in order to pass out and become high.  According to ABC News, The Dangerous Behavior Foundations reports 416 fatalities from choking games as of September 2012.

Not only have these challenges accounted for a staggering number of deaths, people trying to complete these challenges have also garnished hundreds of thousands of views, tweets and shares on social media.

Ultimately, the question becomes why are teenagers prone to following dangerous online challenges? And most importantly, what can we do to curb this risk?

Most adults would probably agree that undertaking any of these challenges and treating them as games is reckless and self-destructive.

Dr. Jennifer Thomas, Wilkes University professor of psychology, offers her own opinion as to why teenagers are more at risk to engage in reckless behavior than their adult counterparts.

Thomas states, “Although adolescents use the same decision-making processes as do adults (they are capable of thinking about consequences, do cost-benefit analyses, accurately recognize the costs of risky decisions, etc.), one explanation is that adolescents are more attuned to the possible rewards of a risky decision than the costs.”

“In addition, adolescents overestimate the benefits or rewards of a risky choice. Furthermore, adolescents fi nd the benefits of a risky decision to be even more rewarding when in the company of peers and friends,” she said.  “In fact, adolescents tend to engage in more risky behaviors (e.g., risky driving, experimenting with drugs and alcohol) in the company of peers than alone.”

In short, the idea of amassing thousands of views and followers or simply gaining the admiration of a small group of friends is enough to outweigh the risk of choking, fire and ice. Teenagers will tend to see these reckless risks as negligible while seeing the nonexistent rewards as profitable.

In order to curb the amount of needless deaths, there seems to be no easy answer since social media and the internet are readily available. Thomas offers a viable solution regarding her statement of risk vs reward.

“In terms of how to help them, focusing on the costs of risky decisions does not seem like a good idea since they seem to know them,” she said.  “Instead, we should help them see that the benefits are not as great as they believe.  Also, if much of teenage risky decision making happens in the company of peers, we should provide teens with more opportunities to engage with peers in settings where they are accompanied by a competent adult who can discourage bad decisions.”

Personally, I believe if we as a society want to diminish careless self-destructive behaviors in young adults  we need to help them understand life is challenging enough without undertaking careless challenges as a sport or for fleeting acceptance.