These kids are seeking fame by risking their lives

08/04/2014 3:25 PM

08/04/2014 3:25 PM

Jump! Jump! Jump!

I can still remember hearing my friends cheer me on, daring me to jump off of a shed. It wasn’t that high, maybe 12 feet. Still, it was a dare to me. I landed safely — no bumps or bruises. Until my mama found out and lectured me with Southern fury.

Like most parents, she issued the standard “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Naturally, I said no. But there was no social media in the ’80s and ’90s. These days, if a bunch of strangers jumped off a bridge, someone would catch it on camera, give it a hashtag, and people might actually follow.

I’m not being dramatic. The latest Internet game to flood timelines: the fire challenge. Teens are dousing themselves in perfume, alcohol, nail polish remover and the like and setting themselves on fire. Sometimes, they stand in the shower, ready to put the fire out. Other times, they resort to the classic “stop, drop and roll.”

What few videos show is the aftermath — the blistering and burns, the peeling skin, the hospital visits. Or the fact that the fire, like these fatal trends, is not always easy to put out.

Water can’t extinguish every flame, says James Garrett, public information officer for the Kansas City Fire Department. Kids don’t understand the flammables they are using or the risks involved.

“Fire spreads fast, and it’s easy to hurt other people,” he says. “It goes from one person’s challenge to exposing everyone in the area to your challenge.”

They haven’t seen many teens in the urban core taking part, but there have been cases at KU Med. Kids are always looking for the new, daring thing.

“Parents need to be a little more alert to these kinds of things,” he says. “If a trend is out there, it will be sweeping through.”

It’s not just up to moms and dads to keep their children from igniting. As a society, we need to rethink what we find entertaining. The power of the “retweet” and “like” buttons has turned social media into one big dare to get fame. In our addiction to drama, to other people’s problems as entertainment, we have sent a message to kids — as long as people are watching, it’s worth trying.

The “pass out” game, which involves choking, hyperventilating and chest hitting, has been around for years. You would think something so dangerous, where teens readily deprive themselves of oxygen to the point of unconsciousness, would have gone away. Kids have died. But people are still tuned in, keeping this wicked game going.

Writing about it, even to lambaste it as I am, is scary. I know it only makes the fire bigger. People will search for the videos, comment and share, adding to the viral reach. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between a viral sensation and a deadly virus. For every dancing flash mob, plank and Harlem Shake there is a knockout game, pass out game and fire challenge.

We’re infecting our youth with a skewed perception of self-worth with every click. They believe they must break themselves down to be built up by people. Meanwhile, we all sit glued to our phones and computers, desensitized to the danger, watching our future go up in flames.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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