The viral Internet stunts parents should know

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Story highlights

  • Challenges like flipping a bottle or choking down cinnamon have swept social media
  • There's some universal advice parents can follow, no matter the challenge

It's a tale as old as time: We see a lot of people wearing/doing/saying something and we want to try it, too. Back in the day it was saying "Bloody Mary" into a mirror at slumber parties. Today, it means viral social media stunts. Though adults get caught up, too, kids are especially susceptible to peer pressure and FOMO (fear of missing out). To them, what was once a double-dog dare is now a popular YouTuber eating a hot pepper just to see what happens.

Called "challenges," these stunts range from harmless to horrifying: There are the silly ones (such as the Mannequin Challenge); the helpful ones (like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge); and the slightly risky ones (such as the Make Your Own Slime Challenge). But sometimes, challenges are downright dangerous, resulting in physical injury -- and possibly even death. So what's a parent to do?
    Below are some of the hottest challenges that have swept social media; some fade and then make a comeback. In most cases, kids are watching these challenges on YouTube purely for entertainment, but some challenges inspire kids to try them out themselves. (In fact, the safe ones can be fun for families to try.) Others -- like the Backpack Challenge -- are often done with the goal of filming other kids and broadcasting the results online. While there could be a new one as soon as tomorrow, they do seem to fall into certain categories, and there's some universal advice that parents can follow, no matter the challenge.

    Funny

    Try Not to Laugh Challenge. Popularized by YouTubers like Markiplier, this trend involves watching short, funny videos and trying not to laugh. It's simple and harmless, though there's often a lot of laughing at others' expense.
    Whisper Challenge. You may have seen this one on Jimmy Fallon: One person wears headphones playing loud music. The other person says a phrase out loud, and the one listening to music tries to read their lips and repeat the phrase. Hilarity ensues.
    Mannequin Challenge. A group of people gets together, poses, and freezes in place, and someone with a camera walks around recording the scene while music plays. Even celebrities have gotten in on this one, including Michelle Obama, Ellen, and Adele.

    Food

    Eat It or Wear It Challenge. This one takes some prep: Put some different foods in separate bags and number them. A player chooses a number, checks out the food, and decides to eat it or wear it. If they eat it, they can dump the remainder on another player's head. If they choose to wear it ... you can guess what happens. Other than a huge mess (and food allergies), this one is low-risk.
    Hot-Pepper Challenge. You can probably guess: Eat a super hot pepper -- like a habanero or a ghost pepper -- while you film yourself suffering and chugging milk to try to stop the burning. Though most people get through it unscathed, there have been a few reports of people ending up at the hospital.
    Cinnamon Challenge. Eat a spoonful of cinnamon, sputter and choke, and record the whole thing for others to enjoy. Again, though there may be some temporary discomfort, most kids won't get hurt -- but some have.

    Physical

    Bottle-Flipping Challenge. Partly fill a plastic water bottle and toss it in such a way that it lands right-side up. This one got so popular they made apps to replicate the experience!
    Backpack Challenge. This one's a little like running a gauntlet. One person runs between two rows of people who try to hit you with heavy backpacks. The goal is to make it to the end without falling down ... but no one ever does. Of course, it's easy for kids to get hurt doing this.
    Kylie Lip Challenge. Oh, Kylie Jenner -- and her lips. In an effort to replicate them, kids would put a shot glass over their mouths, suck in, and make their lips swell artificially. Not only can it cause damage, but it also can be an indicator of body insecurities and the emulation of impossible beauty standards.

    Frightening

    Choking/Fainting/Pass-Out Challenge. To get a high or faint, kids either choke other kids, press hard on their chests, or hyperventilate. Obviously, this is very risky, and it has resulted in death.
    Salt and Ice Challenge. If you put salt and ice on your skin, it causes burns, so the purpose of this trend is to endure it for as long as possible.
    Blue Whale Challenge. Of all these challenges, this one is the scariest and the most mysterious: Over the course of 50 days, an anonymous "administrator" assigns self-harm tasks, like cutting, until the 50th day, when the participant is supposed to commit suicide. It is rumored to have begun in Russia, and there were reports that suicides were tied to the trend, but those are unverified and likely not true. Apps related to the Blue Whale Challenge were said to appear and were then removed. The biggest concern is teens who are at risk and may be susceptible to trends and media about suicide, because even if the challenge began as an isolated incident or hoax, it could become real.

    What to Do

    Talk about it. Though we can't always be with our tweens and teens to prevent dangerous behavior, our words really can stay with them. Say, "If you ever want to do an internet challenge, check with me first."
    Get them to think. Help your kid think through the challenges and whether they're safe or have potential risks. Say, "Walk through each step and figure out where things could go wrong."
    Acknowledge peer pressure. Today's kids think of internet personalities as their peers, so seeing kids on YouTube doing a challenge could influence your kid. Say, "Why do you want to do this? Is this a video of yourself that you really want out in the world?"
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    Stay (somewhat) up to date. Ask your kid about what's happening in their lives when they're not distracted -- even when it seems like they don't want you to. Sometimes kids are more willing to talk about what's going on with other kids than with themselves, so pose questions about friends, school, and trends. Once the conversation is open, you can get a sense of what your kid thinks about the latest craze -- and if they're safe. Keep an open mind and intervene if you're concerned. Say, "Would you consider doing a viral stunt if someone asked you? Which ones would you do and not do?"
    Model responsible online habits. Some parents are the ones recording their kids taking these challenges, so make sure your involvement sends the message you intend. Today it might be harmless, but tomorrow it might be more dangerous. Help your kids make the distinction so they can stay safe. Say, "Let's do a funny challenge together, but we'll only film it if you want to, and we'll only share it with family."