When Kendall Jenner enticed her online supporters with the promise of a “raw story,” they didn’t know what was coming. What they got was something a lot less powerful than they might have expected: she was just advertising an acne treatment. But this type of prank has opened the door to a new form of cyberbullying.
And like so many aspects of cyberbullying, it’s increasingly hard for parents to know what’s going on with their kids. The U.K.’s Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, told BBC Wales in February 2019, “[Children] told us that adults around them, parents and teachers, don’t understand their online world and can’t keep up with the technology.”
In October 2019 Charlotte Robertson, who co-founded U.K. internet safety organization Digital Awareness UK, told The Independent newspaper, “Over the last year we’ve seen the digital landscape evolve at such [a] rapid pace – particularly when it comes to the prevalence of data misuse, access to anonymous platforms and increased sharing of upsetting content. This has left many parents feeling overwhelmed by how best to empower their children to navigate the online world safely.”
The internet has become ubiquitous, with roughly 4.4 billion of the world’s inhabitants already using it, according to media firm We Are Social. And they’re connecting a lot – the average is to be online for more than six-and-a-half hours every day. What, we might ask, are all those people actually doing on the web for that much time?
Well, the most-used website remains search engine Google, by far the top of the pile for internet visits. People also spend a lot of time on second-placed YouTube, the video-uploading sensation. But in third place comes the biggest of the social media sites, Facebook, by far the web’s most popular meeting place.
In fact, according to We Are Social, in 2019 people are spending more and more time on social media. Now the average person who uses it passes more than two-and-a-quarter hours on such sites. This is about a third of the time spent online altogether. Clocking in at a seventh of a users’ time awake, many people clearly now depend on social media for interaction.
On top of internet use, billions rely on email too. More than half of the globe already communicates this way, with more than 4.3 billion expected to be emailing by 2024, according to website Lifewire. Indeed, in 2019 nearly 300 billion emails traversed the planet, and that number only looks set to grow as the years go by.
That creates quite a timesink for workers, with the average person in an office getting 121 emails every day. For a means of communication that has been around for less than half a century, that’s impressive. And it’s not just people in offices, of course; Lifewire reports that more than three-quarters of teens send and receive emails, even if they are more often using messaging apps.
Those teens are probably getting their emails on their phones, as these days it seems everyone has a cell. Think tank the Pew Research Center (PRC) reports that today nearly all teenagers in the U.S. either have or can get access to a smartphone. And with generous data plans becoming the norm, those kids can be online just about all the time.
But contrary to their fully-grown counterparts, teens do not favor Facebook. PRC research in 2018 indicated that although more than half of them do use the site, only one in ten make it their top destination. That accolade goes to Snapchat, which about a third love most, closely followed by YouTube and more distantly by Instagram.
The internet is in large part a positive place for kids. They can use it to search for information, to talk with friends old and new and, of course, to get involved in games with other players. It’s also an outlet for creativity, with many tools available to them to make and share projects.
With so much available, it’s not really a surprise that many kids are using the internet more or less non-stop. We Are Social said in 2019 that nearly half reported that their internet use is close to constant, while most of the rest visit the online world on multiple occasions during the day. With phones, this kind of access is easy, of course
Given the good things that they can get from the web, you might imagine that teens think it a positive influence on their lives. But in fact they have mixed feelings, with 2018 PRC stats showing slightly less than a third agreeing that it’s positive, and a quarter thinking it’s bad. The rest take the view that you have to take the rough with the smooth, with many accepting that it’s a good way to keep in touch if nothing else.
In 2018 PRC asked some teens what their feelings about social media were. One girl said, “I think social media have [sic] a positive effect, because it lets you talk to family members far away,” while another related, “I feel that social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone. It creates a space where you can interact with people.” And one young man added, “It enables people to connect with friends easily and be able to make new friends as well.”
Some teens stressed to PRC the improved availability of information that they could get from social media. One youngster said, “My mom had to get a ride to the library to get what I have in my hand all the time. She reminds me of that a lot.” Another said, “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions.”
Even so, the internet has its downsides. Some social media sites do try to protect young children by setting an age limit. Usually, kids younger than 13 are barred from entry to the social networks. However, the youngsters can usually dodge such controls if they want.
Another danger is posed by people who want to recruit children for nefarious causes. These days, chief among them are religious or political extremists, who look to radicalize youngsters. Other kids are lured into criminal activity, finding it hard to believe that some of what they’re getting up to even is a crime, according to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA).
Other bad guys on the net are scammers who try to “clickjack” the gullible – which includes the young. With this move, the scammer tries to get the kid to click on something that will either download bad programs onto their phone or computer, or snatch their personal information for nefarious uses.
Usually less anonymous are friends who try to get young people to share sexualized pictures by text message – also known as sexting. These can be boyfriends or girlfriends, but sometimes strangers will attempt to get pictures from children who feel that they ought to share with new friends. Sometimes, apparently innocent connections can lead to stalking or other forms of abuse.
One of the worst hazards for youngsters is cyberbullying. Online, children can face horrifying bullying, which can take various forms. Often the bullies will abuse their victims without revealing their identity. And the outcomes can be drastic: a bullied child might suffer depression and even take their own life.
Online bullying is different from the real-life kind. The cyberbully doesn’t need to be strong, or willing to confront a victim face-to-face. All he or she needs is a link to the internet and a PC or phone to post messages or comments on. And there’s no time restriction: bullies can taunt victims late into the night.
Liz Stanton, spokeswoman for internet safety campaign Get Safe Online, told the BBC about cyberbullying’s ubiquity in February 2019. She said, “When you look at bullying, people think of it as something that happens there and then in the playground. But… cyberbullying [is] the hidden bullying that’s going on. It’s 24/7 every day. The bully is in the back pocket – where they’re carrying the phone.”
Some cyberbullies will “out” a person’s information if it’s embarrassing or sensitive. Sometimes they’ll “diss” the victim by sharing information online, sometimes even going to the lengths of making a webpage about them. It can even go to the lengths of “doxing,” which is sharing very personal information, such as Social Security numbers.
The bully might get this sensitive information by trickery, by getting the victim’s trust and then abusing it. Sometimes, when there’s nothing embarrassing to share, the cyberfiend will invent it in a process called “fraping.” A fraper “borrows” the victim’s social media account and posts things that the owner of the account never would.
Other bullies indulge in trolling, which involves throwing insults the victim’s way in the hope of getting a reaction. The insults can be sufficiently personal to make the victim angry, making them fight back with poor behavior. Some trolls mount hate campaigns against others, even going as far as posting spiteful messages on tribute pages so that dead people’s families become hurt.
Some trolls pretend to be someone else, by using a sockpuppet account. Anonymity is a big part of life on the internet, a place where people just can’t be sure who a stranger really is. Some use this anonymity to trick people into romantic liaisons that they otherwise wouldn’t consider by using a faked profile, perhaps with someone else’s photos. This kind of behavior is known as “catfishing.”
Internet fakery came to the fore when Kendall Jenner made out that she had a deep secret to share. Her followers went wild speculating about what it could be: a revelation about mental illness, perhaps, or coming out as gay. Mom Kris Jenner wrote, “I’m so proud of my darling for being so brave and vulnerable.”
But the fans would be massively disappointed. It turned out that Jenner was just trailing a campaign for a beauty company. She had taken her youthful struggles with acne and repackaged them as advertising for skin care products. This overstated version of her story saw a new phenomenon enter the internet world.
U.K. journalist Rebecca Reid dubbed this kind of behavior “sadfishing” in January 2019, using the term to describe “celebrities deliberately withholding information for their own gain.” However, the concept has proven to be damaging to youngsters who have reached out for online support with real emotional problems, but who then are accused of being insincere.
In 2019 Digital Awareness UK (DAUK) presented the outcome of a recent study into sadfishing, which revealed that teens had faced cyberbullying because of it. DAUK spoke to in excess of 50,000 kids, and some told the organization that they had suffered disappointment when sharing their emotions online, exacerbating the issues they were facing.
DAUK said in its report, “Sadfishing is being reported by young people as a growing behavioral trend which they are finding hard to manage. This is a social media phenomenon that emerged after celebrities, such as the American media personality Kendall Jenner, were accused of posting exaggerated claims about their emotional problems to generate sympathy and draw people onto their sites.”
Jenner is not alone in attracting allegations of trolling the internet. Pop heroes Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber have also been accused of posting misleading social media content that was hard to interpret and suggested serious problems. However, Grande, at least, has had more to say about her struggles with mental health.
DAUK suggested that a problem had arisen because youngsters who really were reaching out to friends might end up being compared with less well-intentioned celebrities. It said, “DAUK found that young people with genuine mental health issues who legitimately seek support online are nevertheless facing unfair and distressing criticism that they are jumping onto the same publicity bandwagon.”
The report continued, “DAUK is concerned about the number of students who are bullied for sadfishing (through comments on social media, on messaging apps or face-to-face), thus exacerbating what could be a serious mental health problem. We have noticed that students are often left feeling disappointed by not getting the support they need online.”
Children confirmed these suggestions. One youngster told DAUK that after sharing some of his feelings when depressed about some issues in his home life, at first he’d had a gratifying response, but then things had turned sour. He said, “I got a lot of people commenting on and ‘liking’ my post, but then some people said I was sadfishing the next day at school for attention.”
Worse can follow when teens share feelings about mental health. One girl had received support when she’d posted about feeling depressed. The respondent had formed an online link with her by sharing what he claimed to be his own experiences. However, he was not what he made himself out to be.
Indeed, DAUK explained that the man had been grooming her, and in the end she’d had a lucky escape. It reported, “They had never met face-to-face, but fortunately she ended the relationship when she discovered he was much older than he claimed he was and was pressurizing her to send him explicit images of herself.”
DAUK suggested that this was not a rare occurrence either, with sadfishing proving a common route for unsavory internet users to get to kids. It reported, “Groomers can also use comments that express a need for emotional support as a platform to connect with young people and gain their trust, only to try and exploit it at a later point.”
It’s hard, though, for parents to do anything about the issue. The Daily Telegraph newspaper noted that positive responses to social media posts have been shown to boost dopamine in users, making them feel rewarded and encouraging them to post again. And kids will often post on apps such as Snapchat, where their messages will disappear after a while.
In the end, parents have to trust that kids know what they’re doing on the internet, while trying to keep up with what’s going on. U.K. school principal Chris Jeffery said, “It is encouraging to read of the growing signs of increased control that many young people are taking over their use of technology, but it is also helpful to know new ways in which it is proving to be a burden for them.”
But unfortunately, of course, sadfishing isn’t the only troublesome craze around. In fact, there are all sorts of internet fads that parents need to watch out for. Take the Snapchat shell-on challenge, for instance – a scary online trend that has that the potential to cause kids real harm.
In early 2018 there were reports of teenagers taking part in the perilous “Tide Pod Challenge.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, in 2019 there’s a new fad circulating on social media. But while the so-called “Shell-On Challenge” may not be as harmful as consuming laundry detergent, it’s no less bizarre – and parents need to know the dangers.
Of course, peer pressure can sometimes easily influence teenagers. And as a result, young adults might sometimes be coerced into doing things that they know are wrong or dangerous – just to fit in or feel accepted. But when youngsters have access to social media, influences can emerge from far beyond teens’ immediate circles of friends.
Social media has altered the ways in which we interact with people and the world around us, after all. Snapchat in particular encourages an instant response between its users – due to the brief timeframe in which messages can be viewed. And within the context of this new online world, a funny and popular form of humor has emerged. This is the meme.
A meme usually takes the form of an out-of-context image presented with the addition of a humorous phrase or idea. This could include, say, witty misspellings or purposefully modified grammar. Memes can also sometimes be short videos or GIFs. But in all cases the aim of a meme is to quickly present or communicate an entertaining thought to a wide audience.
One particularly famous meme can be traced back to an online community run by a venture named Straight Dope. You see, in 2013 – shortly after the detergent line known as Tide Pods was launched – a thread emerged on the Straight Dope message board. This discussion raised an issue about Tide Pods and what they’re actually for.
Specifically, Straight Dope’s online conversation centered around how young children might mistake Tide Pods for candy. But elsewhere online, this theme took on a slightly different angle. A tweet dated March 5, 2012, for example, simply asked the question, “Why does a Tide Pod look so good to eat?”
Then, around 2015, the subject took an even more sinister turn. In fact, satirical news website The Onion published an article about the appeal of eating Tide Pods – as told from a child’s point of view. And despite being fictional, the article actually presented an idea supported by real-life instances of more than one child every day being hospitalized due to Tide Pod ingestion.
The notion of consuming Tide Pods subsequently snowballed, with more articles and even comical sketches playing on the concept. Tide Pod in particular was singled out due to its food-themed scents, such as “sour apple,” seemingly making the laundry capsules appear entirely edible. Then a strange phenomenon occurred.
Until 2017, you see, Tide Pod memes seemingly existed only to entertain the crazy idea of eating the laundry capsules – without actually encouraging anyone to do it. But in early 2018 a new take swept across social media. Worryingly, in fact, teenagers began physically imbibing the detergent in what became known as the Tide Pod Challenge.
Yes, the Tide Pod Challenge actually involved teenagers filming themselves eating the detergent capsules and posting the videos to platforms such as YouTube. Some participants would get creative with their contribution, too. In fact, some even “cooked” the tabs before consuming them. But, of course, there are dangers attached to ingesting products that are intended to clean clothes.
Laundry detergent is, after all, made up of potent chemicals that can have detrimental effects to anyone who eats them. The chemicals can in fact burn the esophagus or airways, which might result in severe breathing difficulties. In some cases where laundry pods have accidentally been eaten by adults suffering from dementia, the patients have even died.
Fortunately, then, it seems that most teenagers learned from their misdemeanors, and the Tide Pod Challenge, like all fads, soon passed. Until now. Because today the dare has seemingly been replaced by a new contest encroaching on social media. Yes, in 2019 it appears as though Snapchat users in particular have been caught up in a new spectacle called the Shell-On Challenge.
The Shell-On Challenge isn’t as risky as its predecessor – though it’s still pretty strange. And while there’s no reason to panic about dozens of teenagers making themselves very ill, parents should nevertheless be wary. Because even though there’s little risk of imminent death, there are still dangers involved in the craze.
So the idea of the Shell-On Challenge is that teenagers provoke one another into consuming foods still encased in protective wrappers. Now, a “shell” would normally imply the natural encasing of, say, an egg or a nut. In this challenge, however, there seems to be a liberal interpretation of what can count as a shell.
In some cases, then, the outer shell of the food consumed in the Shell-On Challenge needn’t be a solid one. It can therefore include foods that have natural skins that wouldn’t usually be eaten. For example, it’s normal to consume the skin of an apple – but the peel of a banana or an orange would typically be removed.
Yet it’s also possible to take the Shell-On Challenge to its opposite extreme. That’s to say that, while you’d normally eat the skin of an apple, you would stop before consuming its core. However, the notably strange Snapchat dare doesn’t stop at the cores and protective wrappings that nature offers up.
So it’s apparently typical for those taking part in the Shell-On Challenge to consume foods with their skins on. Indeed, there are numerous videos circulating on Twitter and Instagram of people taking large bites out of unpeeled bananas. There are also snippets of others nibbling on hard-boiled eggs still encased in their shells.
And if you so choose, you can watch people online chowing down on oranges or even lemons without removing the peels. Or you might look on in bewilderment as some people appear to eat kiwis still encased in their tough, furry skins. But ultimately, it wouldn’t be a challenge without pushing the limits.
To take the Shell-On Challenge to the next level, then, there has been a further interpretation of what constitutes a “shell.” So while it might seem bizarre enough that anyone would eat fruit with its skin or peel on, some participants subsequently began biting into foods still wrapped in their packaging. And this is when alarm bells started to ring.
Liam Hamm is a sophomore at Tempe, Arizona’s McClintock High School. And one day, the student decided that he would take part in the Shell-On Challenge. His chosen food was the humble carrot. Now, eating an unpeeled carrot isn’t particularly demanding. In fact, some argue that there are nutrients to be gained from eating the peel.
But eating the carrot’s skin wasn’t Hamm’s challenge. Instead, the teenager took a bite out of the carrots while they were wrapped up in plastic. That’s right. The sophomore nonchalantly chomped through a plastic bag. And, of course, his friends captured it on video.
The video of Hamm seemingly chowing down on the plastic-wrapped carrots was then posted to Snapchat. It also carried the caption, “Y’all eat your lunch with or without the shell.” Many observers, however, were baffled. As a Twitter user wondered, “Why do I live in a generation where challenges like the shell challenge exist?”
Meanwhile, another Twitter user commented, “I wondered why Boomers judged GenZ until I saw a thread about the ‘Shell-On Challenge.’ After 12 videos of high schoolers eating bananas with the peel on… I can finally say I relate to the Boomers.” But it turned out that Hamm wasn’t taking his challenge all that seriously.
Hamm told AZ Central in April 2019, “It looks funny because it’s not really a shell, but people are calling things shells. I guess that is what’s funny about it.” Although the student admitted that eating plastic probably isn’t healthy, he didn’t see much wrong with eating something organic – such as a banana skin.
“It’s the Tide Pod Challenge minus the fact that it’s not dangerous,” Hamm explained. So the teenager, it seems, has a blasé attitude toward the Shell-On Challenge and the idea of imbibing a non-consumable substances such as cardboard and plastic. But is this manner of thinking actually a hazard?
“Organic material like fruit peels are typically not dangerous,” Max Plitt, a physician in the Chicago area, told the New York Post in April 2019. “[Lemon] zest is often used in recipes, which is the shavings of the rind.” But what would be the effect of eating something like cardboard?
After all, that had also happened. As part of the Shell-On Challenge, in fact, one participant took a huge bite out of a cardboard box through to the cereal contained inside. Fortunately, though, cardboard probably won’t kill you – but it’s still far from healthy. And the suggestion that it’s a good source of fiber is, of course, a poor one.
But just to be clear, the fiber that cardboard is made from is not the same as dietary fiber. Cardboard fiber is called sclerenchyma and is a substance that the human body can’t break down. At best, sclerenchyma will pass through your system completely undigested. There is, however, another risk from consuming cardboard.
It seems that certain nasty chemicals are utilized when creating cardboard. Binding agents, for instance, help to form the material, and toxic inks are applied to the finished packaging. These form a poisonous cocktail that wouldn’t be very good for a human being if ingested. Besides, you shouldn’t eat cardboard anyway; it’s just weird.
Yet plastic is far more robust than cardboard and that is the material on which Hamm appeared to chow down. In fact, plastic can actually take as long as a millennium to fully break down. So considering the non-compostable makeup of plastic, the effects of it navigating the digestive system can’t possibly be good.
As Plitt described to the New York Post, “Eating plastic can be dangerous. BPA has been suggested to influence hormones. Chemicals in PVC like vinyl chloride have been linked to cancers.” BPA – or Bisphenol A – is the substance that gives plastic its durability. The Shell-On Challenge, then, is potentially far from the harmless fun that Hamm suggested.
So parents have every reason to worry about their children’s welfare if their offspring decide to undertake the Shell-On Challenge. And as we’ve seen, this new fad – although not as much of a deadly risk as the Tide Pod Challenge – carries its own health warnings. But is everything really as it seems with this social media craze?
Well, numerous news outlets jumped on the story warning parents of the dangers of the Shell-On Challenge. And international news websites even gave the fad coverage too. But The Daily Beast offered a different angle to the story. It seemed, the website argued, that there was something in the teens’ videos that many had missed.
In April 2019 The Daily Beast ran the headline, “Shell-On Challenge: The Viral Hoax Fooling Local News Into Thinking Teens Are Eating Plastic For Fun.” The news outlet then described what other reports had suggested that teenagers were doing. You see, the focus of The Daily Beast’s story was different to anybody else’s.
Indeed, The Daily Beast suggested that the Shell-On Challenge is, in fact, a prank. As the news site’s writer Will Sommer observed, “Like other recent, much-hyped social media challenges, there’s little evidence that this supposed trend is real.” This is a theory that Know Your Meme senior editor Matt Schimkowitz supports too.
As previously mentioned, much of the Shell-On Challenge news coverage implied that the craze was largely confined to Snapchat. But Snapchat’s unique feature is that its users’ videos are only available for a limited time. So if the fad was a hit, Schimkowitz argued, it would’ve spread to other channels such as Instagram or YouTube.
“Either [the Shell-On Challenge is] truly only on Snapchat – making it basically the first and only Snapchat trend not to bleed over to Instagram or YouTube,” Schimkowitz described to The Daily Beast. “Or it’s not actually a thing, which is my hunch.” The news outlet made other pertinent observations as well.
The Daily Beast noted how reports relied on only a handful of clips to illustrate their narratives. And aside from in Hamm’s case, most people in the videos would eat fruit with its skin still on. Yet another image circulated of a cereal packet with a bite-sized hole in the box – and this supported an important observation.
You see, most Shell-On Challenge videos seemingly ended with the participant spitting out whatever they had taken a bite of. And others cut off before anything was actually swallowed. Plus, the image of the nibbled cereal box came from Tate Turner – a Florida-based photographer. And Turner actually admitted that he didn’t eat the packaging while underlining the stupidity of the perceived craze.
“It’s just a dumb trend,” Turner emphasized in an email to The Daily Beast. “You don’t actually eat [the packaging] – although I did take a bite to make it as real as possible. But yeah, you don’t eat the ‘shell.’ It’s just poking fun at dumb things.” So please don’t take the Shell-On Challenge seriously, kids. It’s pretty stupid, after all.