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  • Writer's pictureBreanna Crossman

The Dark Side of Virality: Exploring the Psychology Behind Dangerous TikTok Phenomenons

By Cailey Tin


It isn’t a surprising statement that over 90% of teens worldwide have access to technology, with TikTok as one of the leading platforms that led to an explosive growth in exposure to the digital world. In recent years, this app has fueled the up-and-coming bizarre, seemingly amusing challenges that gain millions of views and amplify the pressure for teenagers to participate amidst potential risks. An infamous example of such trend is the Tide Pod Challenge, which emerged in early 2018 and was immediately criticized by health professionals, safety organizations, and responsible netizens for its dangerous health risks because, frankly, ingesting detergent pods can lead to fatal poisoning. Nevertheless, this trend still persisted on various social media platforms, with primarily teenagers consuming detergent pods and recording their reactions for views. Upon watching our peers act on such an activity that clearly entails serious consequences, we’re likely to wonder: What is the psychology here—are these people simply out of their minds? What makes these challenges so appealing and seemingly unharmful to do, to the point that it’s worth risking their lives?


First of all, because the internet is a wasteland of all sorts of content, risky behavior can desensitize individuals to the possible risks involved. This phenomenon has many factors, but a common one is normalization. Constantly being exposed to extreme content will give us a sense of nonchalance that views sketchy behaviors as commonplace or acceptable, while subconsciously leading us to underestimate the risks. The root problem with this mindset is that we don’t know what goes on behind the screen—the negative consequences won’t be apparent on a 90-second TikTok or even an hour-long YouTube video. As a result, viewers will start perceiving strange behaviors as less harmful than they actually are. But the scariest thing desensitization can do is take away the biggest thing that sets us apart from robots: our emotions. Upon consuming dangerous content, individuals may become emotionally detached or indifferent to the activities they see, and with a false sense of security, they’ll start believing that if others can participate in trends with no harm, so can they.


Next, another factor is the enticement of instant gratification. Our brain’s reward system comes in the form of stimuli, meaning that the more stimulation it receives, the more dopamine—a neurotransmitter of pleasure and satisfaction—is released, and through receiving likes, comments, and shares on social media, our “adventurous” behavior is further enforced. Instant likes and recognition are such a swift payoff that they can overshadow long-term and

real-world consequences, since the stark reality is that teenagers—and people in general—often prioritize immediate pleasure over distant risks. Furthermore, due to humans' fundamental desire for status and recognition, participating in internet challenges can also elevate an individual’s social status within their peer group. While we can have a fun time with our friends through sharing strange experiences and building up our communication skills and sense of belonging, individuals may also feel social pressure to join and compete in reckless trends to maintain or enhance social connections.


Inherently, there is no fault in desiring social validation, growing complacent with assessing danger, and seeking competition by seeing who can push boundaries the furthest. But we must always remember that all of our actions come with a price that can’t necessarily be paid by the currency of digital games. Growing up and maturing is a series of ups and downs—especially as teenagers that only want to explore the world—but it’s of utmost importance that we evaluate the content we consume, the awareness and education we have over it, and the critical thinking skills we employ. We should always be mindful that online engagement should not outweigh our safety and well-being in the physical world. Striving for likes and shares shouldn’t come at the expense of our health or safety, and by remembering this, we can enjoy the benefits of the digital world while avoiding unnecessary harm.



Cailey Tin is an interview editor of Paper Crane Journal. She is an Asia-based staff writer and podcast co-host at The Incandescent Review, a columnist in Incognito Press and Spiritus Mundi Review, and her work has been published in Fairfield Scribes, Alien Magazine, Cathartic Lit, and more. Her work is forthcoming in the Eunoia Review and Dragon Bone Publishing. Visit her Instagram @itscaileynotkylie.

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