During the five-minute drive to her local hospital, thoughts raced through Brandi Owens’ mind: What had the girls been doing? What had happened?
Just 15 minutes earlier, her daughter Timiyah Landers, 12, had had a group of friends over for a chilled Friday afternoon.
Only things started to hot up.
She “looked like a fireball”, Owens said. “She was yelling, ‘Help me!’” she told the Washington Post.
“I was reaching through the fire,” she said, adding that she didn’t realise she had burnt her hands. “It was like a reflex I didn’t even feel the fire, I was just saving my daughter.”
Now the Detroit mother watches as Timiyah lies in intensive care at a children’s hospital with her body covered in severe burns.
Little by little Owens managed to piece the story together and learnt that Timiyah had poured rubbing alcohol on her skin, set herself on fire and filmed it for the express purpose of an online dare called the “fire challenge”.
Over the years, teenagers have attempted some crazy and downright dangerous challenges on social media for their 10 minutes of fame and thousands of “likes”.
One might argue that stupidity knows no bounds. But besides the obvious reasons, there could be a more dangerous one as to why teens are more susceptible to these challenges.
Teen brains are still developing. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, the part of the brain that handles rational thought (the prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed until your mid-20s.
In short, teens tend to be more impulsive and act before thinking of the effects.
Jelle Jones is a professor of neuropsychology and an expert when it comes to the teenage brain. He believes that teenagers simply don’t see the dangers - their brains aren’t wired to consider consequences, he told the Belgium newspaper AD.
The adolescent brain is vulnerable to the pitfalls of social media, says leading child researcher Dr Kristy Goodwin.
During an 2017 interview with Newscom.au, she agreed that a sense of “peer acceptance” was what compels some teens to take up these challenges, no matter how harmful or risky they may be.
“Social media caters to so many of our basic needs to feel connected and competent.
“Because we’re humans and we want to feel like we’re connected, there’s almost a sense of allegiance. If I emulate what others are doing, I’m fitting in,” she said.
The dopamine effect
US blogger Amy Williams first alluded to the dopamine effect when blogging for thirdparent.com.
She backed up her theory by quoting recent research by Danielle Baribeau and Evdokia Anagnostou, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.
What they found is that receptors from oestrogen and testosterone allow other hormones like oxytocin and dopamine to influence brain development.
Dopamine is known to have effects similar to a drug high and feeds the pleasure centre of the brain. Its levels in the teen brain are constantly evolving.
Williams says the dark side effects of this could lead to addiction, hence teens are always on the lookout for the next “high”.
Williams also mentions that teens sometimes don’t consider the risks involved. Instead, they get lost in the details and tend to focus on the reward.
“Whether it is the satisfaction of completing a goal, garnering more likes, or comparing oneself to their peers, the reward is only magnified when social media is the primary mode of communication,” she wrote.