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Psychologist: Social Media ‘Bears Some Responsibility’ For ‘Fire Challenge’

By Matthew L. Higgins
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File photo of an ambulance. (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

File photo of an ambulance. (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

CBS St. Louis (con't)

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ST. LOUIS (CBS St. Louis) — A dangerous new fad is sweeping social media known as the “fire challenge.”

Teenagers have been uploading videos on YouTube and Facebook showing themselves pouring rubbing alcohol on their bodies and lighting themselves on fire. In many of these videos, friends can be heard in the background laughing and yelling when the “fire challenge” takes place.

The consequences from it can be dire as several teens suffered horrific burns. In Cape Girardeau, Mo., 12-year-old Daisey Schumer suffered severe burns on her back participating in the challenge after having perfume poured on her and then getting lit. A 15-year-old in Lexington, Ky., suffered second-degree burns after pouring rubbing alcohol on his chest and lighting himself on fire.

The “fire challenge” also reportedly turned deadly after a 15-year-old boy in Buffalo lost his life taking part in it.

Laura Miller, a licensed social worker and therapist, tells CBS St. Louis that many young people today have an “invincible” attitude, feeling that they are entitled to whatever they want.

“Adolescents typically are a bit irrational in their beliefs about what is safe for them and what is dangerous, hence higher suicide attempt success rates for teens than adults (acting out gone wrong in many cases),” Miller stated. “Lack of civic engagement, de-emphasis of relationships and interconnectedness in the community in general and over-reliance on gadgets, money, and other superficial connections can potentially lead our youth to feel a sense of isolation, emptiness, and meaningless.”

Miller believes that teens look at accomplishing the “fire challenge” as “instant gratification.”

“Extreme acting out by teens may be related to a search for meaning that they are increasingly encouraged to associate with excitement, instant gratification and thrill-seeking, rather than longer-lasting, more deeply rewarding pursuits that are more complicated,” Miller told CBS St. Louis. “However, it should be stressed that teen acting out and impulsivity is normal and that this behavior is a call for adults to contain and try to understand the teenagers they see engaging in such behavior. Of course the ‘fire challenge’ is an extreme example of this and should be addressed as such.”

A YouTube search reveals that there are over 2 million “fire challenge” videos that people can easily access. The popularity of the “fire challenge” spread thanks to the videos going viral on sites like YouTube and Facebook. Miller feels that these social media sites should not be held totally responsible, but do bear some responsibility.

“I don’t think YouTube/Facebook can be held solely responsible for propagating this phenomenon. Social media reflects our culture and in some ways helps us see ourselves from above so we can try to understand cultural phenomena as they emerge. Of course culture also affects behavior and social media bears some responsibility as well,” Miller explained to CBS St. Louis. “However, if kids today are over-reliant on social media, we as adults need to offer alternatives and concern ourselves with where our society is headed in terms of values.”

Miller says that in society nowadays, people are less connected with one another and are less concerned with the well-being of others.

“This, I believe, has disconnected us from ourselves, since much meaning in life comes from human interrelatedness. Kids today connect through risk-taking as in any generation, but at times they lack the ‘check’ of those who care about them and are concerned about their behavior because they are engaging with people on the Internet who are disconnected from them, potentially seeing them more as objects to be toyed with or enjoyed voyeuristically than as people,” Miller stated. “It is our responsibility to demonstrate more positive ways to get attention and test boundaries, encouraging kids to verbalize feelings behind such violent risk-taking.”

The risk-taking can last only several seconds, but the scars will last a lifetime.

“What their hopes are is that it will burn off and the fire will go out, but what actually happens and what can happen is that it can build up so much heat that it can permanently injure the skin and then they have to have burn surgery,” Dr. Mike Feldman of VCU Medical Center’s Burn Unit told WRIC-TV.

Feldman continued: “These kinds of burns can be second or third degree, they may need surgery. They can leave permanent scars, you may have to spend a long time in the hospital…chronic pain.”

In the end, Miller says it’s the adults’ responsibility to contain the behavior of teens participating in this.

“Teens use acting out as a way of experimenting with their own power and expression, but we, as adults, fail to get the message much of the time. It is our responsibility to try to help them communicate more safely and clearly, beginning by demonstrating that we are available to listen empathically and that we will do what it takes to contain their behavior when it becomes dangerous so that they will be protected even as they push back against such boundary setting.”

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