The recent Tide Pod challenge is simply the latest in the phenomena of “challenges”. In another month, some new challenge will be created. It’s not enough to lock up your Tide Pods. We have to understand the psychological phenomena behind challenges. What’s the appeal? Or as Adlerian psychologists ask “What is the usefulness of the behaviour”? All behaviour serves a purpose.
For teens, there are a number of purposes.
First of all, notice that most challenges are being performed by boys. Boys in general (though there are always exception to gender stereotypes and norms of course) find their social status by proving they can excel at something. Girls, on the other hand, get their social status based on the popularity of the friends they hangout with. So, boys generally compete with one another to show they are stronger, faster, and more capable at some skill set. The masculine ideal is to be macho and have no fear. Showing vulnerability and fearfulness puts you at risk for being called a wuss or worse, “a pussy” – equating feminine traits in men as negative, embarrassing, and unwanted.
Let’s look at the purpose of this behaviour from a biological standpoint. In adolescence, the teen brain is wired to increase risk taking behaviors. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense, as this was the age that a child would venture into adulthood and leave the protection of their parents. That was a high-risk transition, and so the brain hardwired a little nudge out of the nest but making such a risk seem “exciting”. Unfortunately, our children are not leaving our huts and caves at the age of 12 to start a life alone. In this generation, it’s more likely you’ll be living at home until your late 20’s. And so, this biological wiring for risk-taking can often lead to unhelpful, and dangerous behaviour – as we see with the Tide Pod Challenge.
We can also look at challenges historically. Throughout history there has always been some passage of rites and rituals that celebrated the transition from childhood to being an adult. Before social media came along, challenges happened in the form of hazing. Before that, boys would learn to hunt, or go on walk about, and be given physical challenges of survival. Afterwards there would be celebrations of their manhood and the elder men would welcome him into their group.
Today, we are seeing less and less of these important passages of rites and rituals to celebrate the virility, competency and maturity, of our youth. Without this in place, adolescence create their own “ceremonies” which can be negative and harmful. They race cars illegally, they see who can drink the most amount of alcohol in the least amount of time, they take turns creating inane challenges to see who has the “balls” to eat things like detergent. Social media has simply made the process even more visually vivid and appealing to youth, as “likes” gain you more popularity and notoriety.
So, what can we do as parents?
First – challenges are not going to stop until we improve social equality between the sexes and feminine traits are no longer seen as inferior. We have to change the toxic masculine ideals and create better, more positive, outlets for our youth to demonstrate their adultness. The more parents coddle their children and helicopter parent them, delaying their maturation into responsible capable adults, the more this abhorrent work-around to prove their bravado and strength in negative ways will persist.