illustrative stock pic for online challenges
The dangerous trend sees youth dare each other to perform bizarre acts and post them on social media. Image used for illustrative purpose only. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: In the age of ubiquitous smartphones and ever-evolving applications, a perilous social phenomenon has emerged, captivating users, especially among young adolescents of both genders.

The menace of online challenges is seen as a growing threat to young people.

This phenomenon revolves around a group of teenagers challenging each other to undertake bizarre and thrilling actions or feats that set them apart from the rest.

Driven by the popularity of social media and the internet, this perilous trend has been dubbed “online challenges”.

While some of these challenges are harmless and light-hearted, others harbour hidden dangers, capable of inflicting serious injuries or even leading to fatalities.

Dangerous dares
* Consuming huge quantities of food and drinks
* Jumping from high places
* Jumping off boats moving at high speeds in the sea
* Doing a dangerous car stunt in rugged places and on roads

Over recent years, the allure of these challenges has spread like wildfire across major social media platforms: TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, and many others. The challenges, whether embarked upon individually or as a group, have garnered immense fame among users worldwide.

Ironically, the word “challenge” itself denotes positivity, signifying determination, perseverance, and the resolve to overcome obstacles. Regrettably, children and adolescents have misappropriated this term, often posing threats to their own health, well-being, and even their lives. Many of these young challengers emulate celebrities and social media influencers who command thousands and even millions of followers.

This phenomenon has dire implications, as teenagers blindly follow celebrities without assessing the potentially dangerous consequences of their actions, games, and challenges. To delve deeper into this disturbing trend, Gulf News interviewed experts in the field.

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In an exclusive interview, we met with Dr Mohamed Al Kuwaiti, Chairman of the Cyber Security Council of the UAE Government. He defined an “online challenge” as a swiftly spreading trend on the internet and social media.

It involves individuals, primarily children, attempting specific tasks or activities, sharing their experiences online using hashtags. These challenges vary from dances to stunts, some of which may promote unsafe behaviour, necessitating caution.

Dr Al Kuwaiti highlighted the dangers of participating in such challenges, emphasising the pressure to seek affirmation on social media driven by peer pressure. This has led to dangerous consequences in the past, with stunts like ingesting dangerous substances, holding one’s breath until unconsciousness, or consuming unusual concoctions leading to injuries and even fatalities.

He enumerated various risks associated with online challenges, including physical harm, health risks, peer pressure, privacy concerns, impacts on mental and emotional well-being, dissemination of misinformation, and potential legal issues.

When challenges cross the line

Challenges may cross the line into explicit violation of the law when they promote illegal activities, endanger lives, involve harassment, hate speech, discrimination, privacy invasions, copyright infringements, false information dissemination, or public disruptions. The UAE has stringent legislative measures in place to combat these dangerous and illegal activities.

Dr Al Kuwaiti emphasised the importance of societal control in preventing this phenomenon from evolving into dangerous behaviors that threaten the safety and security of society.

The UAE government has been actively engaged in raising awareness through campaigns, such as the Cyber Pulse program, which has garnered international recognition. Additionally, they plan to launch targeted training sessions for students and families leading up to Global Cyber Month.

He also highlighted the importance of integrating cyber safety into school curriculums and establishing centers of excellence in UAE universities.

Child Online Safety is a top national priority, driven by the Ministry of Interior’s Child Protection Center. Education and awareness campaigns, digital literacy programs, parental involvement, and collaboration with online influencers were identified as crucial strategies to mitigate the risks associated with online challenges.

In a positive light, Dr Al Kuwaiti suggested encouraging the creation and participation in positive challenges that promote creativity, skill development, and community involvement. Collaborating with online influencers and content creators with a substantial following can help spread messages of safety and responsibility more effectively.

He warned against the legal repercussions of these challenges, with strong legislative measures in place in the UAE, including Federal Decree Law No. 34 of 2021 on Combatting Rumours and Cybercrimes.

Challenges that involve explicit self-harm, hate speech, or discrimination may lead to legal consequences or online platform bans.

Peer pressure

Psychologist and social counselor Al Reem Ali shed light on the underlying reasons why children, adolescents, and young adults participate in social media challenges. Peer pressure, the desire to gain attention, and the pursuit of followers are some driving factors. She emphasised the importance of open communication and trust between parents and children, educating them about the potential dangers associated with online challenges, and setting clear boundaries for screen time and online activities.

Ibrahim Al Thahli

Media figure Ibrahim Al Thahli, an influential celebrity on social media, attributed the spread of challenges to the intense desire of adolescents to imitate social media celebrities and gain attention. He also highlighted the responsibility of parents in monitoring their children’s online activities and not leaving them unsupervised with mobile devices and applications.

While some of these challenges are harmless, many harbour hidden dangers that can lead to injuries or even fatalities. To address this issue, a multi-pronged approach involving government initiatives, education, parental involvement, and collaboration with influencers is essential. It’s imperative that society works together to protect its youth from the perils of online challenges.

“All these abnormal and strange acts are irrational and may lead to serious consequences, causing bodily harm, such as fractures, sprains of the neck, damage to the spine, or other physical damage,” said Al Thahli.

Protecting your family online

Dr Mohamed Al Kuwaiti offered valuable advice to parents on safeguarding their children in the ever-evolving digital landscape. In the UAE, various mechanisms and resources are available to address these concerns. Government agencies and nonprofit organisations collaborate to provide platforms like TDRA’s Aman, Dubai Police’s ECrime portal, AlAmeen, and SafeSociety, offering assistance to the UAE population in seeking help and ensuring their family’s safety.

Dr Al Kuwaiti recommended a series of actions for parents to ensure their children’s online safety:

Open Communication and Trust: Foster open and honest conversations with your children regarding their online activities. Create a safe environment where they can freely discuss their experiences, ask questions, and share concerns without fear of judgment. Establish a foundation of trust so that children feel comfortable sharing their online experiences.

Educate About Risks: Talk to your children about the potential dangers associated with online challenges. Help them understand the consequences of participating in risky or harmful behaviors. Teach them to think critically about the content they encounter online and develop the skills to evaluate the reliability and safety of websites, challenges, and information.

Set Clear Boundaries: Establish rules and guidelines for screen time, online activities, and appropriate content. Ensure your children comprehend what is acceptable and what is not in their online interactions.

Monitor Online Activity: Keep a vigilant eye on your children’s online activities, particularly if they are younger. Utilize parental control software, adjust privacy settings, and employ device restrictions to create a safer online environment.

Lead by Example: Model responsible online behavior for your children. Demonstrate how to use the internet responsibly, engage positively, and avoid participation in harmful challenges.

Stay Informed: Stay up-to-date with the latest internet trends and challenges. This knowledge will enable you to understand what your children might encounter online and help address potential concerns proactively.

By following these guidelines and staying informed, parents can play a crucial role in protecting their children from the risks associated with online challenges and ensuring their safety in the digital age.

Legal implications 

Ali Khalaf Al Housani, a lawyer from Ali Khalaf Al Housani Advocate and Legal Consultants, shed light on the legal ramifications surrounding the spread of online challenges, particularly within social media applications. He highlighted the numerous serious issues plaguing the world due to social media, including privacy breaches, online theft, the proliferation of hostility, cyberbullying, and social isolation.

In the UAE, the legal framework addressing these concerns is robust. Article 46 of the UAE Crimes and Penalties Law identifies individuals who can be considered accomplices in causing a crime. This includes those who incite others to commit a criminal act, individuals who conspire with others to commit a crime, and anyone who provides tools, weapons, or any other assistance to a perpetrator with the awareness and intention to aid in the commission of the crime.

Furthermore, Article 399 of the Code of Crimes and Penalties stipulates that individuals who deliberately engage in actions that endanger lives, health, security, or freedoms can face penalties, including imprisonment and fines. The severity of punishment may increase when the crime has a significant impact.

Al Housani also delved into extortion and electronic threats, outlining Article 42 of the Law on Combating Rumors and Electronic Crimes.

This article prescribes penalties for those who engage in blackmail or threats via information networks or information technology means. Penalties include imprisonment for up to two years and fines ranging from Dh250,000 to Dh500,000.

In cases where threats involve committing crimes or actions deemed dishonorable or presumptuous, the penalty can extend to temporary imprisonment for up to ten years, accompanied by explicit or implicit requests to perform or refrain from specific acts.

In summary, Al Housani underscored that the law treats incitement as an independent crime with specific elements, irrespective of the actual commission of the crime. It holds individuals responsible for persuading others to commit unlawful acts, even if they are not physically present at the scene.

The lawyer emphasised the legal peril stemming from the rapid spread of deadly challenges via applications like TikTok, particularly among adolescents and young people of all genders. These challenges entail perilous adventures that can quickly turn into tragic disasters. Incidents worldwide, including the tragic deaths of teenagers and children, have underscored the gravity of these challenges.

He noted that online challenges have become an obsession for many young individuals, driven by admiration for criminal behaviours. The ease of using these applications, requiring minimal technological expertise, has made platforms like TikTok arenas for these risky endeavours. Online challenges on TikTok involve executing specific actions and sharing videos to amass views and followers. Some challenges involve morally objectionable actions in front of the camera to gain maximum views. These teenagers engage in dangerous and illegal challenges that can result in legal consequences.