Families and technology

Local parenting expert looks at TikTok ‘challenges’

Lecturer, author examines the potential for problems


Since the early 2000s, children have increasingly used social media to connect with others. With that increase has come the trend of internet challenges, most recently those on TikTok.

Launched in 2016, TikTok has roughly 800 million active users globally, and more than 2 billion downloads on Google Play Apps and the App Store (Apple). More than 50 percent of users are between ages 16 and 24, and 90 percent use the app every day. Even some preteens use the app to connect with friends.

Typically, TikTok allows users to watch, create, and share 15- to 30-second videos recorded on cell phones. The content on TikTok ranges from music, dance, exercise, history lessons, and tutorial videos to humor and parodies.

Always present on social media are challenges — and the more outrageous the challenge, the bigger the bragging rights and the larger the number of followers.

TikTok has become a new platform for posting challenges that have long had detrimental effects on children. Some of these challenges are listed here.

1. The cinnamon challenge tells users to swallow one tablespoon of cinnamon without water in 60 seconds. Unfortunately, during the act of swallowing, cinnamon dust can enter and damage the lungs. Cinnamon dust can also trigger an asthmatic attack, and consuming large amounts of cinnamon can damage the liver and kidneys. 

2. The skull-breaker challenge dares one person to jump straight upward while two others kick the jumper’s legs before he or she lands. Too often, the jumper can’t land normally, resulting in broken wrists and sprained ligaments or spines. Most seriously, the jumper’s head may strike the ground and cause brain injury.

3. The blackout challenge instructs participants to choke themselves with a shoelace or other strap until they pass out. Unconsciousness is only meant to last for several seconds, and when they waken, participants supposedly experience intense euphoria. But cutting off oxygen to the brain can cause brain damage or death. Viewing the challenge on TikTok or any social media may mean that a person tries it while alone. A June 21, 2021, article on Insider.com described cases in which children as young as 9 died from the blackout challenge.

4. The Magneto challenge dares TikTok users to put tiny steel magnetic balls – sold in bright packages for use as a children’s toy – into their mouths to simulate having a pierced tongue or lip. Two children in Great Britain, aged 9 and 11, accidentally swallowed enough balls to require life-saving surgery.

What can parents do to ensure that their children do not fall prey to these challenges?

First, parents should stay informed about internet games and trends. Keeping abreast of trends may be difficult while juggling multiple family roles, work, school and other social obligations. One approach could be to reach out to the local library or schools for information. 

Second, parents should talk to their children about the harm these viral challenges can cause. Talking about difficult things requires trust, which is built by parenting that includes plenty of listening, as well as consistency, honesty, and taking care not to be critical or judgmental.

A particular time each week should be set aside for one-on-one parent-child time, allowing the child to choose an activity to do together. Often, kids will open up about things going on at school or online.

Another helpful tactic may be for a parent to walk through the steps of an internet challenge and have the child figure out what could go wrong.

As children become teenagers and their independence increases, it can become tempting to track them online, but a better approach is to ask teens openly about their online platforms and ask for a tour. 

Although internet challenges have many pitfalls, children relish the opportunities to share the fun with friends. Challenges will remain a principal activity on social media, so parents should try to stay connected with their children and updated with their online activities.