By Alexia Porche | Urban Agenda
Although the people in the videos change, the ritual stays the same. An accelerant — alcohol, perfume, even lighter fluid — is sloshed on the body and nervous laughter always escapes the daredevil’s mouth before they
decide to set themselves on fire.
Some young people are engaging in a social media dare known as the “Fire Challenge” in which they pour an accelerant on their bodies and light it to test how long they can stand the heat. The practice is an effort to gain Internet fame or popularity among peers, but it can result in serious bodily harm or even death, experts said.
“It’s harming yourself in front of the world,” said Justin Karter, a graduate student in clinical and community psychology at Point Park University, Downtown.
In the U.S. and in the U.K., there have been reports of teens suffering second- and third-degree burns due to the fire challenge. One California teenager, Fernando Valencia, might need reconstructive surgery due to the severity of the burns. He posted pictures of the burns on his social media website as a warning to other teens who dare to take on the challenge.
The types of people completing the challenge vary. Boys and girls of all races and ages are lighting up social media as they light themselves up. In one video, a 12-year-old boy sprayed perfume on himself and took a match to his arm, while in another Vine video a college student chose to make the same decision.
The fire challenge is the newest in a line of Internet challenges, but dangerous youth dares are as old as time. Before the Internet was a concept, teen boys were engaged in dares such as racing cars toward cliffs to see who would stop first.
While there is no specific type of person who commits this type of challenge, there is a particular set of motivators. Karen Boyer, counselor at The Ellis School in Shadyside, said the willingness to participate in such a dangerous dare is a combination of different factors. The most influential factor is the adolescent brain.
According to a research by Dr. Jay N. Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, “The changes the brain undergoes during adolescence pave the way to adulthood, priming the young person for life away from home and for finding unrelated mates. But this plasticity can also open the door-to-poor decision making and risky behavior.”
Because a teenager’s brain is primed to take risks, “most kids who try to burn themselves don’t think they’re going to burn,” Ms. Boyer wrote. These teenagers may not be able to understand the consequences of their actions, making the decision to light themselves on fire easier.
The social media culture of instant gratification and popularity may also be at fault, Ms. Boyer suggested. As the number of videos posted on social media increases, so does the challenges’ popularity, resulting in fame, or infamy, for those who complete or even attempt them. This attention could lead to an increased social media presence for the teens.
Mr. Karter says because a teenager’s brain has not developed the higher cognitive functioning to understand the consequences, teenagers would risk serious bodily harms to gain popularity.
Mr. Karter also believes the challenge is a way to up the ante from previous Internet challenges, and to prove one’s fearlessness. Because of the Internet’s accessibility and the fast pace of social media, a challenge can now be seen by anyone.
“People acted out in front of others and now people can do this at anytime,” Mr. Karter said.