Young adults in city sharing high fives

Viral Social Media Challenges

With the growth and pervasiveness of social media, there has been a corresponding rise in the rapid, viral spread of “challenges” on various platforms. In a typical challenge of this sort, a user demonstrates an unusual or risky behavior, often in a video. The sensational or dramatic nature of these posts then results in more people or algorithms sharing the content with other users, who then imitate the behavior in hopes of going viral themselves by showing that they can succeed at the challenge. Despite many of these challenges being risky in nature, warnings about potential dangers are frequently absent or de-emphasized, leading to children and adolescents experiencing physical harm.

Such social challenges pre-date the current generation of large social media platforms. The risky Cinnamon Challenge, for example, originated over 14 years ago. The increasing ubiquity of social media and the algorithmic way posts now gain popularity have created enormous new potential audiences for this type of content.

While some viral challenges, like 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge promoting ALS awareness and philanthropy or the #trashtag challenge promoting litter cleanup, have productive goals without significant risks, many other challenges actively endanger users. The study of the spread and effects of these challenges is vital in understanding how to protect users from harm. Below are examples from our database of academic citations on the topic: