The last few years have seen an upward trend in social media games and challenges aimed at children and teenagers which encourage either dangerous behaviours or criminal acts. In March 2016, the Independent reported on 11-year-old Da’Vorius Christopher Gray known as ‘Chi-Chi’ from Lyman in South Carolina who died after playing the deadly game ‘Hangman’ while at home alone. In a game played by children around the globe, it involves purposefully choking themselves until they lose consciousness which they then discuss and compare notes about online. Chi-Chi, however, did not wake up.

In March 2017, CBS News reported on the ‘Eraser Challenge’ where children compete with each other to inflict as much injury to themselves as they can by rubbing an eraser onto their bare skin causing burns. They also highlighted the ‘Fire Challenge’ where children pour flammable liquid on themselves and set it alight, again, to cause self-inflicted injuries they can compare with their friends. Those with the worst injuries win the game.

“Thanks to hashtags, social media dares have gotten increasingly easy to come by. Many are outrageous — and dangerous.”

Before social media, parents worried about the group of peers their children were spending their time with, what mischief they might be getting up to and whether any were a bad influence on their child. Today, the explosion of social media and accessibility of social platforms from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and YouTube has allowed children and teenagers to connect with others all around the world. It is a step out of reality and into a virtual world of ‘friends’ with exposure to these games and challenges which can prove to be extremely dangerous.

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Research by Harvard University has recently linked social media activity and the actions of talking about ourselves to an audience to an increase in the reward and pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine within the brain. This could go some way to explain why both children and adults can get addicted to the use of social media and the attraction and draw for children to engage in these online challenges.

It is hard to believe that an online game encouraging children to harm themselves or even commit suicide would be something any child would be interested in getting involved in, but as Sword & Scale’s blog manager and resident writer Heather Sutfin reported earlier this year, social media games like the Blue Whale Challenge and the Hot Water Challenge have swept across social platforms collecting thousands of participants. The Blue Whale Game is a particularly disturbing challenge where participants are given a task a day to complete for 50 consecutive days, “…designed to slowly break down the player physically and psychologically.” Heather explains. “When the game was over, the player would die,” she continues.

Research into the adolescent brain has highlighted that night-time, when most are more likely to be active on social media and engaging with these challenges without their parents’ knowledge, is when their brains are more vulnerable to not thinking through decisions, being impulsive and being easily led and influenced by peer pressure. The frontal lobe of the brain where decision-making and logic operate is underdeveloped in teenagers, not fully forming and connecting with other areas of the brain until their mid 20’s. This neurological developmental stage leaves teenagers especially open to bad decisions and impulsive, risk-taking behaviour increasing the likelihood they may actively engage and participate in online games such as the Blue Whale Challenge. Add this to standard teenage experiences and difficulties of fitting in with their friends and wanting to feel they belong, it can be a very exposed period and a potentially dangerous mix of elements.

Reports suggest there have been over 130 deaths of teens directly related to the Blue Whale Game that starts with self-harm and ends in the child taking their own life, live streamed over social media to prove their completion of the challenge. Creator of the game, Russian 22-year-old Philipp Budeikin, was jailed for three years in July 2017 for his role in encouraging and promoting self-harm through the online game in two cases, although he is being investigated for many others.

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Even five years ago, in 2012, Web MD was warning parents about dangerous games their teenagers may be engaging in without their knowledge, games they often found out about and were encouraged to participate in through online communications. The Choking Game, very similar to the ‘Hangman’ game that killed 11-year-old Chi Chi last year, where children purposefully choke themselves briefly to give themselves a rush either using their own hands or some form of ligature is one that understandably has seen a high number of serious injuries and deaths. Statistics show the average age of children who died while playing this game was 13 years old and 96% of them were playing the game alone when they died.

One of the newest online social media games to be reported is the 48-hour Challenge. It is not currently clear how much of a trend this game is but it appears children are encouraged to go missing for 48-hours and the longer they can stay hidden without their parents or guardians knowing their whereabouts, the more points in the game they achieve. Success is measured by the number of social media mentions or pleas from worried parents that are posted, whether the police are informed and the scale of searches in order to try and find them.

One case of kids playing this game has been reported in County Derry in Ireland. “I was terrified they were dead or would be raped, trafficked or killed,” the child’s mother told the Independent.

“But these kids just think it’s funny. There was not even a moment of remorse when my child was taken into police custody and when the police brought my child home, I could see posts of selfies from the police car.”

Teens compete with each other viewing the entire game as a fun and amusing activity to ease their boredom and achieve respect from their friends. The risk to their safety and the terrifying hours of worry they put their parents through as part of the process they appear to be blissfully ignorant to.

The internet and social media do provide some excellent resources for children and teenagers to learn and connect with others, however, they also provide danger and opportunities to get involved in things they would not necessarily be exposed to in their everyday lives. While this trend in dangerous online challenges remains, the rise of injury, trauma, and death amongst the children and teenagers drawn into them will unfortunately continue.