We all have different attitudes towards risky behaviour, ranging from excessively cautious to wildly reckless, but few of us would ever attempt to drive a car blindfolded. The dangers of such an act, however, were evidently not apparent to the teenager in the US state of Utah who, earlier this month, crashed her car into oncoming traffic while her eyes were covered up.
Why would anyone do such a thing? The short answer: she was copying behaviour she'd seen in Netflix horror movie Bird Box, in which the characters wear blindfolds to avoid seeing an entity that drives unfortunate witnesses insane. The longer answer is more complex, involving issues relating to peer pressure, online prestige, perception of risk and the viral contagion of online memes and challenges. In essence, people are showing off in the hope of becoming briefly notorious. Sometimes it works. But occasionally, things can go wrong.
The official Netflix Twitter account urged the public not to indulge in unwise behaviour while blindfolded. “Please do not hurt yourself with this Bird Box Challenge,” read the tweet. “We don’t know how this started, [but we] have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.”
People who failed to heed that warning included YouTube personality Jake Paul. A few days later, Paul uploaded a video of himself and an accomplice wandering out into traffic while blindfolded. The video has since been deleted.
A history of stupidity
YouTube's rules already prohibited content encouraging "dangerous or illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm", but the spate of Bird Box copycatting caused them to go a step further and issue a "Dangerous Challenges and Pranks Enforcement Update", warning people that posting such content repeatedly would see them banned from the platform.
It’s not the first time that corporations have had to step in to curb our reckless behaviour. A year ago, it was to advise people not to eat laundry detergent tablets known as Tide Pods. What began as a harmless joke about how edible the tablets look became a serious health issue – dozens of teenagers were hospitalised, shops began putting the tablets under lock and key and legislation was proposed to force the product to be redesigned. YouTube and Facebook both announced that they would remove videos of the “Tide Pod Challenge”.
Then, a few months later, the problem resurfaced with the “Kiki Challenge”, in which drivers jumped out of a moving car and danced alongside it while being filmed from the passenger seat. As the fad gathered pace and people were inevitably hit by their own cars, police across the world issued warnings. Indeed, Egyptian authorities announced a punishment of up to one year in prison for anyone attempting the challenge.
Trying to become famous
Anyone can become a star on the internet, and challenge-based videos – particularly dangerous ones – have a huge potential audience. The worldwide popularity of MTV series Jackass clearly showed that we're very happy to watch people imperil themselves, but every community has its own budding stuntmen and stuntwomen.
Back in 2012, videos of the so-called “Cinnamon Challenge” (in which people film themselves trying to swallow a spoonful of ground cinnamon) picked up more than 2.4 million hits in a six-month period. Doctors warned of the risks of doing so, but many young people kept on performing the stunt for the camera.
Studies show that teenagers are more likely to take risks than any other age group, resulting in what's known as the paradox of adolescence. "In the period of life during which people are at their healthiest and fittest, there is still mortality caused mostly by accidents that are largely preventable," explains Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in her book Inventing Ourselves.
She goes on to describe how the brain’s limbic system generates a feeling of reward when risks are taken, and how adolescent brains are particularly sensitive to that feeling. In addition, she notes that emotions such as regret and relief may not have developed fully in teenagers. “When we make a decision we anticipate, and try to avoid, the undesirable feeling of regret based on past experience when we were faced with similar choices,” she says. Teenagers, in other words, are still accumulating wisdom.
Younger people likely to be influenced
Other studies, however, suggest that younger people may instead have a feeling of invincibility. This was certainly the case with YouTuber Pedro Ruiz III, the self-styled “Crazy Pedro”, who in 2017 persuaded his girlfriend to shoot him in the chest, on film, while he held an encyclopedia in front of him for protection. He died. But such feelings of invincibility are enhanced by repeated viewing of daredevil videos.
"People change their behaviour to fit in with other people," concludes the research paper, Social Influence on Risk Perception During Adolescence, produced at University College London in 2015, "[and] adolescents show a higher susceptibility to social influence than adults do."
In other words, as we get older we become more choosy about the kind of behaviour we seek to imitate, but many teenagers will unquestioningly copy the behaviour of successful, prestigious YouTubers in pursuit of online fame. As Professor Steve Stewart-Williams, author of the book The Ape That Understood the Universe, outlined in a recent article: "When we copy a prestigious person, we don't just copy the things that made them a success. We often copy irrelevant things as well, including clothes, political views and drug habits." And even, he notes, suicide.
Will YouTube's crackdown on dangerous challenge videos make any difference? The speed with which viral memes spread makes it impossible for moderators to eliminate them entirely, and they're up against a community that's desperate to grab our attention, whether it's by throwing boiling water over each other or free-climbing tall structures without safety equipment (both of which have found large online audiences in recent years).
Persuading the global population not to behave recklessly is a challenge in itself, and when you see that the latest Bird Box blindfold challenge has been performed by a tattoo artist while tattooing a client, it makes you wonder if we're simply unable to save ourselves from our own stupidity.