It seems like only a month ago that the media, parents, and doctors made a concerted effort to stop people, many of them teenagers, from eating laundry detergent.
Now, yet another dangerous “challenge” is making its way across the internet.
The “hot coil challenge” encourages people to burn themselves on a red-hot, stove-top heating coil and post the resulting video online.
While not nearly as widespread as the Tide Pod challenge, its appearance online is worrisome for obvious safety reasons as well as perplexing.
Certainly, the old adage parents ask of their kids, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” seems relevant.
Sure, the internet has changed the playing field a bit, but there are also biological reasons that explain the sometimes idiotic and even dangerous behavior so perfectly distilled in online challenge videos.
“Kids have this fearlessness that seems to be supported by the fact that it happens in a context,” Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist, in Connecticut, told Healthline.
“So, it’s not just that they know it’s not a good idea, but they often are influenced. The part of their brain that is influenced by peer acceptance and immediate gratification outweighs the risks,” she added.
Ducharme emphasizes that teenagers in particular are susceptible to emotional behavior brought on by groups of people and peer pressure.
That same pressure can be teased out online in what amounts to a group of individuals connected through the internet.
It’s not that teenagers don’t see the risk in these types of behavior, but rather that that part of the brain can be overridden in exciting and emotional circumstances.
Ducharme uses the phrase “groupthink” to describe these kinds of circumstances.
Groupthink is a common term in psychology to describe situations in which individuals can sacrifice critical thinking and analysis for the sake of group coherence.
Another term, although it doesn’t have a clinical definition, is also quite apt: “daredevil brain.”
Despite the risks involved with many online challenges, they also represent a sort of acceptance in a group of potentially millions of people.
It offers a chance “to be a part of [something] that sometimes makes kids feel a sense of belonging. It’s that emotional piece that’s important, even though they could clearly say to you that eating a Tide Pod is a stupid, idiotic idea,” Ducharme said.
The online ‘spectacle’
There’s also an undeniable narcissism to the spectacle as well.
Although, that’s just par for the course for teenagers, said Ducharme.
Studies have indicated that our fascination with selfies may simply have to do with just how much we like seeing ourselves on social networks.
Add in the allure of potential viral fame, and it’s not hard to see why online challenges can be so popular.
However, unlike some other challenges posted online, the hot coil challenge more aggressively encourages people to actually harm themselves.
Things like the “3AM Challenge” — in which participants do annoying things like call their friends at, you’ve probably guessed, 3 a.m. — probably aren’t going to hurt anyone.
Even the “Tide Pod Challenge” started out more as a joke about how aesthetically appealing Tide Pods looked, before people took it a step further and actually started putting them in their mouths.
The painful truth about burns
The “Hot Coil Challenge” is different and the potential for harm is obvious.
“Putting your forearm on a burner, you’re more likely to get a deep second or third degree burn that’s going to lead to increased scarring and increased risk for infection,” said Justin Gillenwater, a board-certified plastic surgeon who specializes in burn and critical care at the LAC-USC Burn Center in Los Angeles.
If you’re unfamiliar with the characteristics of burn degrees, you can check out Healthline’s guide to burn care.
The basic gist is that anything past a sunburn is at least second degree. Second and third degree encompass a range of burns to both the outer layer of skin (epidermis) and inner layer (dermis).
In an area like the forearm, which is the location of the burn in this challenge, it’s easy to get a severe burn, said Gillenwater, because the skin is thinner and doesn’t require much heat energy to burn.
Second degree burns will likely leave a scar and require medical attention. Third degree burns always will.
“The first tenet of burn care is burn prevention, so not letting yourself get burned, but if you do suffer a burn, the first thing to do is to try and cool the area with running tap water, trying to remove the excess heat from the skin,” Gillenwater told Healthline.
However, the first tenet of burn care obviously doesn’t apply when someone is intentionally burning themselves.
It may seem silly to have to tell people not to eat laundry detergent or put a limb on a red-hot stove, yet here we are.
In addition, Ducharme encourages parents in particular to engage with young children and teens about these types of behaviors and why they may seem attractive.
“Parents have to try and be aware of [what] their kids are doing online and encourage open discussion of these kinds of things,” she said. “We understand that their brains get it, but we also understand that emotions and desire to belong can really outweigh the cognition.”