Online challenges: raising awareness or a waste of time?

The internet has been overcome with Ice Bucket Challenge videos in recent weeks. Forget cat memes or food porn, now it’s all about throwing a bucket of ice water over your head.

The challenge is certainly for a good cause – raising awareness for ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and hopefully inspiring people to make a donation to an ALS charity. But are online campaigns like this one more about showing off to your followers and fans than actually wanting to help out?

The ALS Association would argue that it’s the latter, as they’ve collected over $15.6 million (€11.7 million) in donations since the challenge began gaining traction among big business names like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Countless celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and even Oprah have also gotten in on the act. Sure, it’s gimmicky and exhibitionist, but it’s raising awareness and collecting cash.

The same is true for the #nomakeupselfie madness which took over Facebook back in March and April. Users were nominated by friends to post pictures of themselves without make-up, and to make a donation of €4 to a breast cancer charity. At the start, the idea seemed a bit ridiculous – show off how good you look without make-up and donate a few euro to charity. But soon it became clear that the campaign had really taken off. The Irish Cancer Society received over €1 million in donations, with more raised for cancer charities elsewhere in the world.

The real problem lies in the recent popularity of challenges that are no more than dangerous dares, such as Nek Nominations. The aim of this bizarre trend was to down a pint of beer on camera, and nominate your friends to do the same.  

While supporters of the challenge argued it was just a bit of fun, things got totally out of hand with video posters going to extreme lengths to stand out. It’s one thing to throw back a glass of beer – it’s quite another to drink a pint of straight spirits just for kicks.

Nek Nominations really took a dark turn when it was reported that the deaths of two Irish men were linked to what they had done in their videos. The trend has since all but disappeared from social media but it is a stark reminder of how dangerous online challenges can be, as people compete to show off just how “brave” they are.

The use of social media has changed in recent years and it is now being used less and less as a way to interact with friends and instead as a way to connect with the world at large. The outcome is not always a positive one, so perhaps it’s best to stop and take a moment to think next time you share that “hilarious” video or picture of you doing something crazy.