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2018 Public Health Perspective Essay Contest 3rd Place

Carter Lewis
12th grade, Wayne School of Engineering

Carter received her 3rd place award from Board of Health Chair Robert Cagle, III and Charles T. Gibson. She received a $300 Educational Scholarship and a $50 Gift Card.

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 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, 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.

Work Cited

AACAP. "Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making." Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making, and- Youth/Facts- for- Families/FFF-Guide/The- Teen-Brain-Behavior-Problem-Solving-and-Decision-Making-095.aspx.

"About." Cinnamon Challenge Videos,­ submit-video/.

Calmenson, Benjamin, and Pat Sullivan. "Why Social Media Challenges Are Spiraling out of Control." Washington Examiner, Washington Examiner, 6 Feb. 2018,­ control.

CBS/AP. 'Teen Severely Burned in Online 'Fire Challenge."' CBS News, CBS Interactive, 2 Aug. 2014,­ fire-challenge/.

Donovan, Jay. "The Average Age for a Child Getting Their First Smartphone Is Now 10.3 Years." TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 20 May 2016,­ average-age-for-a-chiId-getting-their-first-smartphone-is-now-10-3-years/.

Grant-Alfieri, A., et al. "Ingesting and Aspirating Dry Cinnamon by Children and Adolescents: The 'Cinnamon Challenge."' Pediatrics, vol. 13!, no. 5, 2013, pp. 833-835., doi:10.1542/peds.2012-3418.

Lu, Alicia. "The 'Facebook Fire Challenge' Is Terrifying." Bustle, Bustle, 23 Mar. 2018, fying-youtube-facebook-fire-challenge-inspires­ teens-to-literally-set-themselves-on-fire.

O'Connor, Anahad. "Consequences of the 'Cinnamon Challenge'." The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2013,

"Understanding the Teen Brain ." Understanding the Teen Brain - Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center, 3051.

"Why Are Social Media Challenges So Popular With Teens?" TeenScife, IO May 2017,