Adolescent Health in the Digital Age
"If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?" How many times has this platitude been uttered
by parents of adolescents through the ages? However, in this technological era we are now raising our families in,
this cliche takes on new relevance. The "Digital Dare", promoted at lightning speed on the internet and captured
on teenagers' smartphones across the globe, has quickly surfaced as a critical threat to the physical and mental
health of youth in today's society. While we are pleased with the strides we have made in health treatments and
disease prevention (secondary to advances made possible with technology), we also face the insidious consequences
of living in a digital age. The pervasiveness of social media has had an evolving, unforeseen impact on our youth.
This has presented new challenges to adolescent health, which continue to emerge in the face of ever changing
technology and its influence.
"I dare you!" The "Digital Dare" takes this provocation of the past to another level, splashing the goad
across the internet for all the world to view, comment on, "like", or share with others. Sadly, that is all
it may take for a teen to risk their health in exchange for approval and acceptance. Adolescents are exposed
to harmful dares and challenges on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media outlets, invited by
peers and strangers to engage. Serious injury, paralysis, or even death may be a mere click away from an
impressionable teen. One example, the "Cinnamon Challenge" involves taking in a spoonful of cinnamon in less
than 60 seconds, without any water. The "Fire Challenge" requires that someone douse themselves in flammable
liquid, set themselves on fire, and quickly jump into a pool or shower. There are many challenges, being
created every day. Due to the rise of social media, the challenges go "viral" rapidly, becoming much more
widespread than the dares of yesteryear. Now, anyone with a smartphone can record and upload these challenges
for an international audience to view, even the youngest and most impressionable youth. The average age of a
smartphone owner is decreasing; according to TechCrunch.com the average first-time smartphone owner is
10.3 years old.
As you can see, "digital dares" have the potential to pose a now constant threat to the health of teens
and young children through technology. The "Cinnamon Challenge", mentioned earlier, may cause choking or
lung collapse. According to cinnamonchallenge.com, this dare consists of trying to swallow one spoonful of
cinnamon, in 60 seconds, without drinking anything. It is important to know that the body's task of
producing enough saliva to do so is almost impossible. Due to cinnamon's bioresistance and biopersistence,
it will not dissolve or degrade in the lungs. The effects of the cinnamon challenge are nothing short of
unwanted, harmful, even deadly. Since the body cannot digest the spoonful of cinnamon in such a short
time frame, it can cause choking, inflammation, and may even require a ventilator.
The "fire challenge" is worse; however, also exposing teens to huge health risks and the threat of death.
This consists of a participant dousing themselves with flammable liquid, such as nail polish remover, and
subsequently lighting it on fire. The consequences are usually first and second degree bums, with possible
lung damage due to superheated air. Unsuspecting youths running toward water to extinguish the flames give
more oxygen to the fire, increasing its temperature, longevity, and lethality.
Why are our youth creating and participating in these "digital dares", with seemingly obvious risks to
their health and safety? Researchers pose that certain mental factors play a role in the acceptance of
challenges such as the ones described. As children enter adolescence, many psychological and biological
changes have been documented as taking place. For one, the frontal lobe of the brain is still underdeveloped,
and some research indicates it may continue to develop until up to around age 25 in individuals. This area is
associated with decision making and personality; therefore, its lack of development may contribute to
irrational decisions often attributed to teenagers. Also, adolescents may be more likely to take risks
due to the underdevelopment of the amygdala, responsible for immediate reactions such as fear or anger.
t has also been noted that "thrilling" activities lead to a dopamine response. Receptors that receive
it change over time, and lead to diminishing returns, a factor that may contribute to increasingly
drastic measures to be taken for happiness and acceptance.
There are also social causes that appear to contribute to teens being willing to take great risks
with their health. Many psychologists pose that teenagers are lured into "digital dares" in an
attempt to achieve a sense of community and belonging. A hashtag can turn into a banner for one to
rally behind. For example, when one types #CinnamonChallenge on the internet, they are instantly
inked to a community of people that have participated in the challenge across the world wide web.
This sense of community, conformity, and acceptance can be exactly what a young person is looking
for. Teenagers often want to feel popular, as well. Apparently living by the mantra, "there's no
such thing as bad publicity", teens may accept these dares in order to gain notoriety.
Knowing the physical, mental, and social issues issues associated with "digital dares", how can
we solve this emerging adolescent health problem? School seems the most likely place to start, with
more education regarding the consequences of the dares and the physical health dangers. Also, creating
opportunities for teens to build a sense of community on the internet through positive causes would be
a safe alternative for building peer relationships.
Collaborating with guidance counselors, physical education/health, and homeroom teachers in local
schools could be an effective approach in educating teens with facts and statistics regarding the
harmful effects of trending challenges. These school personnel could raise awareness of the risks
involved in accepting challenges, as well as how to handle peer pressure and bow out of challenges
when confronted with them. Parent awareness is also a factor to consider, and schools may want to
get information out to stakeholders to open pathways for discussion in the home (PTA, alert calls).
Emphasis on physical consequences should be an effective deterrent. A curriculum that demonstrates
the link between harmful effects of challenges and how detrimental they could be to the daily lives
of teens (disability preventing them from playing sports or permanent damage robbing them of their
independence) would hopefully cause them to think twice.
In order to positively shape adolescents' sense of community and strengthen identity, schools
should provide safe options. Encouraging students to create social media challenges for good,
such as the successful "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge" to raise awareness of a debilitating disease
or the "22 Push-Up Challenge" created to raise awareness of veteran suicide and service, can get
teens involved in beneficial causes. This way, social needs can be satisfied with a sense of
purpose and meaningful impact.
One idea would be to have schools select a cause or social issue to rally behind, with
student input. This will create buy-in. Original challenge ideas to promote this issue could
be brainstormed, created, and voted on by students in homeroom or P.E./health classes. This
could be done in small groups, large groups, or even classwide. School personnel would
supervise and verify suggested student-created challenges for safety and appropriateness.
It is critical that students feel that they h
Once the "digital dare" has been selected, the school can organize and complete the challenge.
School designees can share the challenge through the school website, or any other means of
school publicity (apps, newsletters, alert calls). Students would be encouraged to share the
challenge on their own social media, too. Taking this a step further, students may even
choose to promote the issue more widely by creating an organized event.
To conclude, "digital dares" impact adolescent health due to associated harmful physical
effects, that may cause severe injury or death. Teens are susceptible to these challenges,
as they are still developing physically, mentally, and socially. Technology, while beneficial,
is creating unprecedented harm to this vulnerable population. Educating students
regarding the consequences of online dares, and promoting community through positive
challenges will hopefully help our youth make better choices in the future.
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