Fake trends like "slap a teacher" are frequently described as TikTok trends, even when there's little to no evidence that they originated or spread on the platform.
Shayanne Gal/Insider
  • Numerous challenges have been linked to TikTok despite little evidence showing they were on the app.
  • There's a long history of fads for children being misattributed to online platforms.
  • An expert compared the misinformation around internet challenges to the "Satanic Panic" of the '80s.
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On September 22, Idaho-based School Resource Officer Dave Gomez, who shares information about schools and digital safety on a Facebook page with 33,000 followers, posted a list of "upcoming TikTok challenges" as a warning to parents. 

Following the "devious lick" challenge, when students stole school equipment and posted about it on TikTok, the list included a warning about a supposed "slap a teacher" challenge, echoing claims that had swept through Facebook pages and groups of parents, police officers, and schools across the US. 

The problem? There was no evidence the challenge was circulating — or existed at all — on TikTok, Insider found.

This attribution phenomenon isn't new. Fake trends like "slap a teacher" are frequently described as TikTok trends, even when there's little to no evidence that they originated or spread on the platform. 

Abbie Richards, an independent misinformation researcher who specialises in TikTok and has written for the left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America, said that many adults just don't understand TikTok and its culture. This creates an "alarm zone" and makes the app, which was founded in 2016, "a great boogeyman" for parents to place blame on. 

Instead of adults "doing the actual work of understanding" TikTok, Richards said, "it's much easier to say, 'This is scary and hide your kids.'"

While TikTok hasn't disclosed the age demographics of its over one billion users, Omnicore Agency estimated in a January report that 32.5% of TikTok's global audience fell between the ages of 10 and 19. The biannual Piper Sandler "Taking Stock with Teens" report, which surveyed 10,000 US teens, found in fall 2021 that 73% of respondents said they used the platform. 

Supposed trends like the 'blackout' or 'magnet' challenges have been attributed to TikTok without evidence

Challenges like the "blackout challenge," an asphyxiation challenge that involves choking yourself to unconsciousness, or the "magnet challenge," which involves mimicking tongue piercings with small magnets, have been described as TikTok-specific trends or challenges in news reports. 

And while there have been instances of similar harmful challenges spreading online, there's no evidence they are connected to TikTok. 

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, there were reports that children had died from "choking games," or asphyxiation challenges similar to the "blackout challenge," as early as 1995. 

In 2012, years before TikTok's launch, the United States Product Safety Commission, which tracks the safety of consumer products, issued a warning against children and teenagers plopping magnetic balls into their mouths to make fake tongue piercings. Dyan Hes, a New York City paediatrician, previously told Insider that tiny magnetic balls have been "wreaking havoc on the health of children" for years.

Still, these challenges — particularly in the wake of tragedy, such as the death or injury of a child — continue to be attributed to TikTok. 

A mother of an 11-year-old who was hospitalised in May for ingesting five tiny magnets blamed a "TikTok craze," the Daily Mail reported, and a mother of a nine-year-old who had to undergo bowel surgery in September after they accidentally downed magnets told the BBC that her son performed the trend after seeing videos shared on TikTok.

When asked about the "blackout challenge," a TikTok spokesperson previously told Insider that the platform blocks "related hashtags and searches to discourage people from participating in or sharing potentially dangerous content." When asked about the "magnet challenge," a TikTok spokesperson also previously told Insider that the platform couldn't find "evidence" that the trend existed on the app.

This misattribution is part of a long history 

Supposed challenges that theoretically pose a danger to children have been attributed to online platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook in the past. In some cases, they've been complete hoaxes. 

The Atlantic reported in 2019 that hoaxes like the "Momo challenge," which falsely claimed an image of a supernatural creature named "Momo" was encouraging children to die by suicide, were spreading on social media. As The Atlantic reported, this hoax spread through an online ecosystem of scared parents and local news stations, whose reports helped spread and add legitimacy to the claims. 

"There's always this fear," Richards said, of "what are your kids doing when you're not watching." She compared the current paranoia around internet challenges to the "Satanic Panic" moral outcry of the 1980s, when people propagated baseless conspiracy theories about children being abused in mass Satanic rituals around the United States, according to the New York Times

While many were convicted of accusations related to the panic during this fraught period, some of the accused were later released, The Times reported. In 1994, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect reportedly conducted an empirical study looking into the validity of cult sex abuse based on Satanic ritual claims, according to The Times. The researchers found that out of 12,000 allegations, investigations were unable to prove every single one of them, according to The Times. 

Misinformation about fake challenges can detract from real concerns

Irina Raicu, the director of the internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, told Insider that these real challenges can add credence to untrue claims on social media — which can "shift us away" from "real stories" of social media's harm on children. 

TikTok executives testified in front of the Senate for the first time in October alongside Snapchat and YouTube, promising to share internal research on how their apps affect children, The Washington Post reported. Social media sites have been under particular scrutiny for how they can affect children's and teens' mental health.

TikTok said on Wednesday that it's rolling out new resources geared towards teens, caregivers, and educators regarding dangerous challenges. The app will prompt users who search for content related to dangerous challenges or hoaxes to visit the Safety Center and additional resources (such as a link to the National Suicide Prevention hotline) to those who search for suicide and self-harm-related hoaxes, the company said in a blog post. 

Spreading fake challenges can take attention away from the outcry over real, potentially dangerous challenges, Raicu said. For example, one challenge that did spread on TikTok, the milk crate challenge, featured people —many of them teens — climbing up and down tall stacks of flimsy milk crates, which doctors have warned could lead to broken bones and spinal cord damage. 

"If you are sharing fake stories about social media's impact, you are diluting the impact of the real stories that we need, as a society, to get our hands on," Raicu said.

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