What are dangerous online hoaxes and challenges and what should we be doing about them?
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Dangerous challenges can have a devastating impact on individual children and can be a source of significant concern for parents and teachers who often feel uncertain and anxious about how to respond. You may have heard in the news about young people taking part in dangerous online challenges and posting and sharing them online, but what are they?
We are pleased to be able to share some Praesidio research we led on behalf of TikTok which seeks to examine what is known about dangerous online challenges bringing together survey data, academic research from relevant fields and insights from a global expert panel. This work seeks to shed light on this issue and support understanding and responses. In our report we identify ethical, safe and effective approaches to preventative education that can reduce the risks dangerous challenges present to children and young people.
For a copy of the full report, please visit our website.
What are dangerous challenges and hoaxes?
Online challenges involve people recording themselves online doing something that is difficult or risky, which they share to encourage others to repeat it. A popular example of this would be the ice bucket challenge, where participants were encouraged to record themselves pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads and then post their video on social media. This viral challenge is considered fun and safe, and the intent of this particular challenge was to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. People of many different generations engaged with the ice bucket challenge and it went viral on several social media platforms.
A dangerous challenge is similar in nature to an online challenge. However, these challenges are dangerous and could result in substantial physical injury or permanent harm. The tide pod challenge is a notable example of a dangerous challenge, which involved participants eating washing detergent pods, which can cause significant harm or injury. People shared their videos online and encouraged others to take part in the challenge.
Online hoaxes, sometimes known as pranks or scams, differ from challenges as they are tricks that are created to make someone believe something frightening, but which isn’t true. They can sometimes be quite extreme as they are created to cause panic. With hoaxes the element of the challenge is fake, but they are designed to be frightening and traumatic and can have a negative impact on mental health.
Some hoaxes can also include distressing self-harm or suicide narratives. There have been several examples of these types of hoax challenges in recent times which were considered in our research. These hoaxes propagate the falsehood that there is a bad actor directing users (usually children) to carry out a series of harmful activities which escalate ending in self-harm or suicide. The identity of the bad actor is always hidden. Sometimes, it is claimed that blackmail threats are used to force children/young people to act against their will in a so called suicide game with 50 tasks that culminate in suicide. More recently, the identity of the harmful force is a spectral being with superpowers and the ability to undermine the users' agency through mind control to force them to complete a serious of dangerous tasks including self-harm and suicide. In these cases, the hoax challenges spread widely despite these narratives being entirely fake.
How do young people engage with dangerous online challenges and hoaxes?
Part of our research included analysing survey data about hoaxes and challenges which aimed to understand awareness, engagement and impact of hoaxes and challenges among teens, parents and teachers. This included a survey reaching 10,900 people across a multitude of countries and revealed some interesting insights.
In terms of online challenges, the findings uncovered that most teenagers are not engaging in challenges of any kind (with only 21% actually participating in challenges at all) and that 48% regard most challenges as fun or safe. This suggests that any preventative education or strategies based on the idea that all challenges are dangerous and harmful will not resonate and are unlikely to be successful for young people - if we just tell young people to stop engaging in any challenges, its unlikely to work.
The research also found that teenagers want both more and better information to assess risk and that they see this as the most important thing they need to stay safe. 66% of teens are also looking for support or advice, but the research found that parents and teachers were not well equipped to meet that need.
With regards to hoaxes, the data revealed further interesting insight. Generally, hoaxes are experienced more negatively than challenges, with the impact felt on their mental health. This is perhaps not surprising given the distressing content within hoaxes. The research also showed that people don’t know how to assess hoaxes – only 31% are able to identify them as clearly fake. This shows that a clear majority are unsure about hoax content and don’t quite know what to think, perhaps unsurprising given the content is designed to cause confusion and uncertainty. The fact that a majority are unsure about the content and don’t see it as necessarily fake, may in part explain the attitude that its ok to share.
When we explored the reasons why young people share or re-post dangerous challenges or hoax challenges, we found that the desire for affirmation and acceptance from their peers was the main driving force. 63% of teens ranked getting attention from others in the form of views, likes or comments as one of the three top reasons to share. It is worth noting that there is also a natural inclination to share something shocking.
The survey data also revealed that teachers have real concerns about hoaxes. 56% of teachers indicated that they are extremely concerned about hoaxes. However, the findings suggest that they feel ill-equipped to support teens with hoaxes. Only 33% of teachers agreed that schools provide helpful tools and guidance on hoaxes for children and families. This shows there is a real gap for educators.
What should we be doing about dangerous hoaxes and challenges?
It is important for caregivers and those working with young people to recognise that young people are driven to take risks and that interventions that simply ask them to abstain from doing so are unlikely to work. From an early age, we should be providing young people with strategies to help distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable risk online, just as we do in the offline world, and acknowledging that taking risks can create positive opportunities for personal growth provided those risks are proportionate and understood.
Whilst prevention education is crucial in addressing dangerous online hoaxes and challenges, there is also a critical role for industry, especially with regard to social media platforms. There is a key role for platforms to act quickly to identify and remove dangerous challenges and hoax content to reduce the risk of exposure for younger users.
We highlight that there is a role for the mainstream media too. We recognise that journalists have a critical role in reporting information that is in the public interest, including things that impact the safety and well-being of children and young people. However, we recommend exploring models for reporting on this kind of content without exacerbating harm.
We are pleased to see that since our report was published, TikTok have already actioned some of our recommendations by introducing a new page on their Safety Centre dedicated to online challenges and hoaxes. This new page will help teens, caregivers and educators understand more about hoaxes and challenges, and provide them with the tools to talk about online challenges and suicide and self-harm hoaxes.
Dr Zoe Hilton, Director at Praesidio Safeguarding
Zoe has been a founder Director of Praesidio since 2017. Praesidio is an independent safeguarding agency which delivers strategic advice, research, training, and investigations. We have a particular expertise in digital safeguarding, and we work with a wide range of organisations including Government departments, global tech companies and international NGOs on these issues. We are at the cutting edge of policy development and innovation, and we offer a range of services to help organisations improve their systems and approaches.
Prior to setting up Praesidio, Zoe was the Head of Safeguarding and Child Protection at the National Crime Agency, formerly CEOP between 2009 and 2017. In this role she led the child protection teams, leading on complex abuse inquiries as well as overseeing the response to several hundred referrals from children, parents and professionals every month. During this time, Zoe also led on a number of pieces of research and CSE threat assessments for CEOP and led CEOP’s national research panel. She also chaired the National Crime Agency’s protect board which is responsible for cutting edge collaborations across industry, policing, education, and the voluntary sector to reduce the threat posed to children from child exploitation and abuse.
Before joining CEOP/NCA Zoe was the lead policy adviser for the NSPCC for child sexual abuse and exploitation and led for the NSPCC on online safety. Zoe has a PhD in Criminology and social policy and has authored a range of policy and research articles.