Tuesday, June 18 2024

Have you ever heard of the “choking game“? It’s just one of the many dangerous challenges being thrown on social media that seriously endanger the lives of many young people.

It involves a person tying a rope around their neck and then trying to hold on without air for as long as possible.

Young people, often alone with their smartphones and without the capacity to discern, are seduced by these traps, convinced that they are just harmless and light games. In reality, we are facing a social evil, which is becoming a real public health problem.

Unfortunately, it almost goes without saying that extreme competitions of this kind are also causing deaths, in many parts of the world. The case of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina, who lost her life precisely for trying to “win” in this “game,” caused a stir. The same fate befell a 13-year-old girl in Palermo and in Wisconsin a nine-year-old girl.

The victims are certainly many more than those that the news brings to our attention, and the list of “death challenges” is also very long. Just to name a few we think of: Batmanning, Eyeballing, Blue Whale, and the Bird box challenge.

Whose responsibility is it?

University researcher and professor of “Psychology of Adolescence” and expert in developmental psychology, Gaia Cuccì, explains, “Kids are in the thrall of a self-feeding mechanism. With these challenges come more followers and more likes – and also earnings for those who have a partnership with YouTube, for example – but the further you go, to gain more in followers and more likes, you are forced to raise the bar. And raising the bar can mean doing something dangerous.”

Quite often, then, influencers are the ones launching these challenges, enticed by the fact that the more risk you take, the more views you grow. The more you are seen, the more money you get.

Normally, there is no malice: the audience is not invited to imitate or reproduce the content of the video. Social challenges are not created with the goal of pushing users to repeat the dangerous action. Rather, they are “entertainment products,” which allow users to earn compensation from sponsors.

In fact, however, in addition to taking a risk for oneself, one offers a bad example and can be emulated, especially by other young people, who are attracted to risk – seeing it as a means of asserting their own value – but are also naive and less capable than adults of “stopping before it’s too late.”

The attraction to risk and immaturity

According to Dr. Cuccì, underlying the behavior of these influencers is an inability to foresee and reflect on the consequences of a behavior – the legal and psychological risks, for myself and for others. And he explains that both those who propose the dangerous action and those who emulate it have an underlying problem of immaturity: “We are faced on the one hand with cognitive immaturity, and on the other hand, emotional. These behaviors are engaged in because one cannot control emotions. Often, kids approach risky behaviours because they lack other strategies to fulfill the functions that risk helps to fulfill: building an identity, testing their limits, gaining greater autonomy.”

A necessary first step: raising safety standards

How to protect kids? First, we need laws whereby videos with seriously dangerous actions are removed and certainly not rewarded with revenue. Greater security is needed. Take the case of YouTube: safety standards are not high, because anyone, in fact, can film themselves and post a video. And if that anyone is a young person who is not responsible enough, there you go into a ruinous spiral, because danger builds an audience and attracts followers.

One should work, then, in defense of the most fragile, making sure that videos containing life-threatening actions are blacked out. And, at the very least, be prevented from earning fees. Indeed, the practice of online challenges should be discouraged in every way.

Adults being present: the most important element for good growth

Obviously, however, this is not enough. “External protections” are important, but not enough. We need to get to the root of the problem, which is to ask why young people need these things in order to feel alive and to intervene accordingly, with ongoing dialogue and spurring them to put their gifts to good use in the service of others.

Remember that young people often have problems with self-esteem: they use challenges to get noticed, gain acclaim, feel accepted. It is up to adults to spend more time alongside young people, to help them build their personalities in a healthy way, to show that true strength is not to risk life but to give it. To do this requires being there, always, especially in times of weakness and fatigue.

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