Originally published 27 February, 2019

How perpetrators of crime are relying on you to advertise their products for free; and you do. How you may be adding to the online harm issues for children and young people without being Free advertising used to be a dream for large companies who wanted to sell their products to as many people as possible in the shortest timeframe possible. Finding a slot between popular TV programs would mean that you got the biggest bang for your buck. If the advert was good people would talk about it to their family and friends. Now all you need is a video or image and some people with internet access and hey presto the digital highway of cyberspace/internet can send this to more people than you could count. Unlike a TV ad, this image or video can repeat many times on many platforms in cyberspace and so the exponential impact becomes a very cheap option. But what if you wanted to recruit children to buy your product? Surely you would need something that could be accessed by children, talked about by children and also would become a hot topic for adults to talk about, therefore keeping the fire burning in the engine of mass impact. Forget children’s TV, the area that would get you the most traction is likely to utilise somewhere children

I suspect the two most ‘popular’ areas that children currently frequent are schools and the internet, namely apps that are deemed suitable for children such as YouTube kids? Whilst this is slightly tongue in cheek as these are very likely the two most popular areas aside from Family homes there is a significant factor here; If a child has YouTube kids app then there is an adult in the house who owns that device and is likely to use social media.

Creating a moral panic of fear driven posts

Here is the formula for a perpetrator of the crime to use this ‘algorithm’ (not the computer type but one of human behaviour), to create a pandemic of fear and curiosity in children and is resulting in a moral panic of fear-driven posts that advertise a perpetrators ‘idea’ or ‘product’ for absolutely nothing!

The latest ‘challenge’, ‘game’ or ‘threat’ on social media

Recently I have been inundated with a plethora of messages from family, friends and social media contacts regarding a ‘challenge’ or ‘scary video’ or ‘suicide threat’ dependent upon which social media platform you read the story on. This ‘game’ (which I’m not naming on purpose because I’m not adding to the internet algorithm where possible), it has an image of a face that reminds me of the wife in Beetlejuice, has enlarged eyes and an elongated face. I’m not here to discuss the validity of this new ‘game’ as I don’t entirely trust any of the reports I have read anywhere and I saw this shared in Australia a few months ago, with the same impact. It’s now here in the UK and will no doubt be replaced by another soon enough. Nor am I discussing within this blog the issue of children who have been privy to seeing this image/game whilst unsupervised as I think parents get a bad enough rap as it is regarding their digital parenting skills. To be fair this is likely to be so few actual instances of children engaging in this behaviour in comparison to the postings currently on social media.

The human nature algorithm

Here’s where the human nature algorithm adds to this issue and why I’m writing this blog;

When you share the images/videos of the games/pranks/dares/challenges you may create a level of vicarious trauma where images are seen by people who may not have been prepared to see this in their social media feeds. You are responsible for what you share, and I am aware this is often done without considering the impact if you are sharing for a reason that you think is important. When you take a moment to stop and think about what this share may result in then this is called ‘mentalising’, or ‘theory of mind’ or ‘empathy’ (it’s a factor of Emotional Intelligence). It takes time to stop, reflect and consider what you are doing and why and when you are in an emotional place this skill is lessened. Panic and fear are powerful emotions for disrupting empathy.

Children are curious

The images or video stills tend to be quite large and have a well-designed novelty factor (as intended by the designer of the product) and these can be seen by children looking over your shoulder, on a device belonging to someone else, their social media feed and on occasions on newsletters from schools. Children are curious to know what you are talking about or looking at (Think of when you try to have a conversation with a friend in the playground or kitchen?). Children are curious and where they feel they may not get a satisfactory answer from you or another adult they will ask another child or in today’s world, they may well google it. If your children, ask being transparent and age-appropriate in your responses helps alleviate this. You do not have to scare your children with the full article details (which may not be true anyway), however, to help them develop their critical thinking skills about the validity of the post and to discuss how they would let you know about issues like this, you need to be in communication with them from the outset.

Sharing the trend adds to the algorithm

When you share that image/video of the trend, you add to the existing algorithm of the ‘trend’ and if it is an intention of perpetrators of a crime to advertise their product, i.e. to entice children to find out about their videos or games then the best people to do this for them already exist in a fear-driven world and they are the adults. Children do not have this advertising power, you do and so do schools,child-related​d clubs, professionals who support children and other fear-driven​ parents. You literally advertise for them for free. Each and every time.

So what can or ought we do?

I’m not saying don’t share this information to raise awareness. I’m saying check facts, check the leading internet organisations websites and check reputable sources that discuss e-safety/online safety issues… with actual facts.

Why children look at scary things on the internet; Why vicarious Cybertrauma/trauma is a thing!

I have a previous blog that covers why children look at scary things on the internet, why vicarious Cybertrauma/trauma is a thing and I podcast about issues like this and covered similar topics in 2017 and 2018 with Alan Mackenzie who is a fabulous internet safety adviser, where we looked at young people trends and YouTube.  This really isn’t a new thing, however, the way the recent issue has been shared has left me silently in awe of the ‘maker’ of this trend as it went viral in the UK within a few days and still continues to be shared, without them lifting a finger to a keyboard or paying an advertiser. Each time the story gets added to and increases in platforms used/shared and a narrative that drives fear.

A new phenomenon of “pass on” whispers..

Our fear feeds the monster and I am already hearing about it in therapy from children who heard adults talking about it in the playground and I have seen so many hyperbolic additions to this new Chinese whisper phenomenon. (Some from companies who claim to inform parents about e-safety issues).

Fear is the greatest driver for human algorithmic behaviour

Become aware of it and you can work out a way to inform rather than scare. Shock tactics do not work, nor have they ever been a great way to educate. They come from a deep-rooted place of fear and feelings of incompetency. So like crossing the road, STOP, LOOK carefully and LISTEN for your own fear monster. Fact check and consider how you can share this information to educate not scare. If you find you’re thinking this way. Stop again and breathe and check-in with yourself what your fear is, because like the challenges the bogey man just got under your skin. You probably know why and I’m not here to shame anyone.

Relevant links:


CyberSynapse Podcast / Vlog – Influential behaviour on primary school children – ‘Challenges/Dares or Peer pressure?’ – 16th December 2018

https://youtu.be/7RT044lFo0s – 17th December 2017

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