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Why Are People Falling Off Milk Crates? The Psychology of Risky Viral Trends

milk crates

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Key Takeaways

  • After numerous reports of injuries, TikTok recently banned a dangerous viral trend known as the “milk crate challenge.”
  • The popularity of viral challenges speaks to our inherent desire to fit in and feel part of something larger than ourselves, experts say.
  • Teenagers may be especially susceptible to trying risky stunts because their brain’s decision-making center is still developing. 

Earlier this week, TikTok banned the milk crate challenge—a viral social media dare that involves trying to climb up milk crates stacked like a wobbly pyramid. Many videos of people attempting the stunt ended in a painful wipeout, and occasionally broken bones.

The milk crate challenge certainly isn’t the first dangerous social media trend to go viral, especially among teens. There have also been ones that dared people to swallow spoonfuls of dry cinnamon, ingest a laundry detergent pod, or choke themselves until they passed out—all of which can have serious health consequences. So why do people continue to put themselves in harm’s way for likes and followers?

Let’s take a look at the psychology of dangerous viral social media trends and why young people are at increased risk of trying them.

Feeling Connected and Popular

At a basic level, viral social media challenges give people a chance to feel part of something bigger than themselves—and that’s not always a bad thing for individuals or the world at large. 

The Ice Bucket Challenge, in which a person pours a bucket of ice water over their head, helped raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and more than $115 million in donations for the ALS Association within the first six weeks of its launch in 2014. Despite a handful of injuries, the challenge is largely considered safe and fun.

“Social media can project a feeling of community and connection, and viral challenges can gain momentum very quickly as a result,” says Jennifer Hettema, PhD, a clinical psychologist, associate professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico, and senior clinical director at LifeStance Health. “However, the same emotions that make you feel connected to a charitable viral challenge can make you equally motivated to participate in other more extreme viral trends that could even be dangerous.”

Jennifer Hettema, PhD

Social media can project a feeling of community and connection, and viral challenges can gain momentum very quickly as a result.

— Jennifer Hettema, PhD

The willingness of many people to participate in those dangerous stunts speaks to the inherent human desire to feel connected, explains Brittany Morris, MSW, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker from Thriveworks in Chesapeake, Virginia. And that feeling can be so strong, it can trump the risk of getting hurt doing a stunt.

“Humans have an inherent need for connection,” she says. “During the pandemic and even long before it, the Internet and social media have become safe havens for many individuals struggling to find their place socially. Online popularity feeds our egos in many ways and also makes us feel valued.”

Plus, successfully completing the challenge can feel like a “badge of honor,” adds Morris, and give a person’s an opportunity to potentially go viral, boosting their online popularity.

“A stamp of approval by another, or many others, may be seen as the main building block of one’s personal value and worth,” says Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and mental health quality consultant at Teladoc.

Why Social Media Challenges Tempt Teens

Watch a few videos of people doing risky social media challenges and you might notice a trend: Most of the participants are kids, teens, and young adults. While part of it can be chocked up to the younger demographics of social media users, there are also psychological and physiological explanations for many teens’ willingness to try dangerous dares.

For one, that desire to feel part of a group is especially strong during adolescence.

“Children and teens are most susceptible to these dangerous challenges because of the need for belonging. In our early teens and adolescent years, we are dying to be accepted and searching to find out a niche,” says Morris. “Aside from the natural impulsivity, curiosity, and self-centered notion of living forever, this age group wants to be validated by others, especially their peers.”

Brittany Morris, MSW, LCSW

Children and teens are most susceptible to these dangerous challenges because of the need for belonging.

— Brittany Morris, MSW, LCSW

What’s more, teens’ brains are still maturing, and they’re not yet fully capable of understanding the true risks of trying dangerous stunts.

“Biological research has established that teen brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex, or decision-making and judgement portion of the brain, are not fully developed, limiting their ability to consider all pertinent factors in making a sound decision,” says Dr. Dudley. “Given this, from a psychological perspective, many youths are focused on engaging in social media actions that can gain them a popularity beyond what they can ever imagine gaining by just being the kid that is part of the ‘in crowd’ in school.”

Dr. Hettema adds: “This part of the brain does not fully mature until about age 25.”

Keeping Teens Safe During Viral Stunts

The milk crate challenge is banned from TikTok, but it’s likely that another dangerous social media stunt is right around the corner. So how can parents and teachers help teens understand the risks of participating in perilous challenges and make safer decisions?

“For parents, limiting screen time and monitoring what kids view online is the easiest way to make sure they aren’t being heavily influenced by trends that may be dangerous,” says Dr. Hettema.

That might be easier said than done, given how much social media has become a part of young adults’ lives, though. Hence why experts also encourage parents to help teens develop a strong sense of identity outside of their online presence. 

“Work towards building a positive sense of self with realistic expectations. This will help reduce comparison with others on the Internet, which often leads to low feelings of self-worth,” says Morris.

Finally, try to keep abreast of the latest challenges yourself. Some may be harmless and fun, but being able to recognize ones that pose a danger allows you to warn teens about the risks.

Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

Knowledge can help parents and school officials be in the know about what trend may catch youths’ attention, and possibly get in front of if there are any concerns related to it.

— Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD

“Knowledge can help parents and school officials be in the know about what trend may catch youths’ attention, and possibly get in front of if there are any concerns related to it,” says Dr. Dudley, adding that adults should take the time to explain why a given challenge could be harmful.

Dr. Dudley continues: “What I’ve often found is that when kids feel that you take what is important or of interest to them seriously, instead of being dismissive, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.”

What This Means For You

TikTok may have banned the dangerous milk crate challenge, but the next risky social media trend is right around the corner. Experts say participating in dangerous social media trends speaks to our inherent need for belonging. And since teens’ brains are still developing, they may be unable to carefully weigh the risks when making a decision to participate in one of these stunts.

Experts encourage parents and teachers to keep an eye on new social media challenges. Many are harmless, fun, and even charitable, but spotting a potentially dangerous one allows adults to warn teens about the risks involved.

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  1. ALS Association. Evaluation of the ALS Association grant programs: executive summary report. Published May 2019.