Longing for belonging: “Dangerous tests of courage are often tests of submission”


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“Dangerous tests of courage are often tests of submission”

Hold your breath or choke in front of the camera until you faint. The so-called blackout challenge – also known as the “blackout challenge” – is an example of dangerous trends in social media. From the point of view of the Hamburg psychologist Michael Thiel, such challenges are also tests of courage. In an interview, the expert, who works with children, young people and families, explains what’s behind it – and how parents can protect their children.

What tempts adolescents in particular to test their courage?

Michael Thiel: With adolescents in particular, it’s always about increasing their fluctuating self-esteem. On the other hand, it’s about belonging: “I want to be part of the community. And if a test of courage is part of it, then I’ll do it.” Young people in particular have a longing for attention, for reward, for praise and for the feeling of belonging. And also after being something special. These dares are actually tests of submission: you submit to peer pressure. The really brave would refuse and clearly say “No!” say.

A new form of tests of courage are the so-called challenges, which take place on the Internet. This includes, for example, having lost so and so much weight in a certain period of time. Or “Roofing”: Unsecured climbing and posing on high-rise buildings and construction sites. The transition between challenge and test of courage is fluid.

The tests of courage that take place today usually have one goal: to be recorded with a mobile phone, then to be disseminated on the Internet and thus to receive the appropriate attention and clicks. Thanks to our technology, this direct comparison in a matter of seconds has never been easier than it is now, where you can immediately see through click and follower numbers: “Did I succeed with the dare or not?”

Have social media such as TikTok made dares more dangerous?

Yes, the whole thing has a new quality. The tests of courage are even less controllable through social media. In the past, when you took a test of courage, you were dealing with real people. The group then probably also helped when something went wrong.

The challenges nowadays take place rather separately: the young person sits alone in his room and begins – stimulated by the Internet and Co. – to develop ideas on how he can best present himself in tests of courage. So he may be manipulating himself or endangering his health with absurd weight loss challenges.

If dares are less controllable these days, how can parents protect their children at all?

I would like parents to encourage their children to explore their abilities and talents well before puberty. For example, if someone is really good at sport and is promoted in a club, they can find their competitions, their challenges and thus their confirmation there in a relatively safe environment. Children can find the sources of their own self-esteem there and show how good they are.

It is important to maintain continuous contact with the child even before puberty and to build up a secure bond. If a child generally feels respected and loved, the need for confirmation from outside the family is often lower. Conversations in the family, for example when eating together, about dangers and personal experiences, but also about the child’s successes and abilities, stabilize the child’s self-esteem and convey a realistic view of possible dangers. Even if the opinion of the clique is perhaps more important than that of the parents during puberty, the young person will usually not even take on such dangerous challenges because they have the courage to say no.

A dangerous test of courage does happen: don’t just freak out and show your own concern, but then calmly explain the parents’ point of view as realistically and honestly as possible. As a rule, these are challenges on the net that quickly disappear again.

But parents should also make it clear to the child: “You’ve crossed a line here, I’m worried about you and your health. If you want to do something that seems strange to you, then come to me and we’ll talk about it.” Young people actually want to make their own decisions. But if they trust and have contact with their parents, there is a higher chance that they will seek advice when they become unsure.

Sabrina Szameitat, dpa, spoke to Michael Thiel

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