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The Impact of Social Contagions on Teens

students gathered around a mobile device looking at a video

In a time when media coverage on heated topics such as gun violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault are at an all-time high, it’s critical to recognize the potential side effects that too much exposure of this content can have on impressionable age groups. Social contagion, also known in this context as a media contagion, is a specific kind of social influence largely impacting individuals within the age group of 15-19 years of age.

Teens are more digitally connected than ever. When influenced by social contagion, they are more likely to adapt, or even imitate the behaviors found within the media channels surrounding them. The potential for harm sourced by a social contagion could also increase significantly with such easy access to observe dangerous behaviors on the social media sources teens prefer. 

For example, Drake, a popular musician, released a new album this July. The music video of his hit song “In my Feelings” rapidly went viral. Not only did fans love his song, but they began filming themselves imitating dance moves from the video then posting them online. In turn, those recordings became the next social media trend to catch on as a challenge.

The so-called In My Feelings Challenge–or Kiki Challenge–involves people filming themselves jumping out of a moving car while dancing to Drake’s hit song. And true to the nature of a social media challenge, the desire to outdo the performances of others increased the likelihood of injury. Many teenagers and young adults got into car accidents or hurt themselves while doing the challenge.

We see a nearly identical impact from the Tide Pod Challenge, another powerful example of a social contagion which went viral at the start of 2018. This challenge was shared mainly over YouTube and featured participants intentionally ingesting toxic ingredients by biting into the brightly colored laundry detergent pods. 

Some teens (and would you believe some adults) who attempted the challenge sustained severe chemical burns. In response, the American Association of Poison Control issued an advisory over the improper usage of these detergent pods.

Social media has proven to be a powerful tool with many benefits, but also many negative aspects and often aiding the spread of social contagion in teens. In both of the above examples, social media fueled the rapid escalation of these challenges. In the age of social media, it’s essential to be aware of these challenges and inform the teens in your community about the inherent dangers of participating in these trends.