Unless you’re a celebrity who dies or the author of an incendiary New York Times op-ed, it’s fairly difficult to go viral during the tepid holiday news cycle. Yet one news story managed to break through the tedium of the waning days of 2022, about an AI assistant that reportedly encouraged a 10-year-old to electrocute herself.
The story was based on a tweet from the child’s mother, Kristin Livdahl, who was horrified to discover that, while searching for fun “physical challenges” to do with her daughter on a rainy day, Alexa recommended that they do the “penny challenge,” a trend that had reportedly circulated on TikTok last year involving children sticking loose change into electrical sockets. Upon further investigation, Livdahl found that Alexa had sourced the tip from a content mill called Our Community Now without properly vetting it.
Most news outlets that reported on the story used it as an example of the dangers of relying solely on AI for information. (In response to a request for comment from Rolling Stone, an Amazon spokesperson said, “As soon as we became aware of this error, we quickly fixed it, and will continue to advance our systems to help prevent similar responses in the future.”) But nobody who reported on the story — least of all Our Community Now, the outlet that had reported on the Penny Challenge to begin with — appeared to ask one crucial question: Whether the “Penny Challenge” was actually a legitimate trend. Because had anyone asked that question, they would have learned that it is not.
Rumors of a TikTok “challenge” encouraging kids to stick pennies into electrical outlets have been circulating since at least the fall of 2020. (A much more anodyne challenge by the same name, which promised to help people save hundreds of dollars in one year, went even more viral in Jan. 2017, according to Google Trends. The hashtag #pennychallenge has about 35 million views on TikTok, but most of the challenges under the hashtag are people competing to see how long they can keep pennies on their foreheads.) News outlets worldwide breathlessly reported on the dangers of the “trend,” quoting fire departments and child safety experts attesting to its hazards.
Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, given the incredible diversity and depth of the human capacity for stupidity), it seems that a few kids have actually elected to stick pennies into electrical sockets over the years. Last year, for instance, two high schoolers in Massachusetts reportedly were charged with burning a building and destruction of property after singing an electrical socket in their classroom. Yet despite this isolated example, there was little evidence that the “Penny Challenge” was an actual trend, says folklorist Benjamin Radford, who specializes in the study of urban legends.
“Like any urban legend, it could be real, [it’s] inherently plausible,” he says. “A few kids have of course unfortunately shocked themselves doing stupid stuff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was done as part of an organized challenge, per se.” He compares the uproar over the Penny Challenge to the panic over the Momo Challenge, another social media-based challenge which reportedly involved a haunting image of a Japanese child encouraging children to cut themselves; or the “Blue Whale” game, which reportedly encouraged children to take their own lives (that was later found to be sourced to just two Russian-language news outlets, and credulously repeated by English-language tabloids). “As is usual in these cases, people are freaking out over something that could have happened, not something that did happen,” he says.
The Penny Challenge was far from the only challenge to prompt parental pearl-clutching this year. In 2021 alone, there was the “National Shoot Up Your School” Challenge, which led to high schools across the country shutting down despite the Department of Homeland Security determining that it did not pose a credible threat. There was the National Rape Day challenge, which suggested that a group of men were planning to commit sexual assault on a randomly selected day in April. There was the Devious Licks Challenge, which purportedly encouraged bathroom vandalism; the Milk Crate Challenge, in which kids were instructed to climb and balance on a pyramid of strategically placed milk crates; the Blackout Challenge, which Women’s Health reported has resulted in the death of more than 80 children; and the Gorilla Glue Challenge, which encouraged creators to put the adhesive on their bodies.
Not all of these challenges were hoaxes, per se: TikTok did remove videos relating to the Milk Crate Challenge, citing its policy prohibiting “content that promotes or glorifies dangerous acts.” Creator Tessica Brown also famously went to the ER after accidentally establishing the Gorilla Glue Challenge, leading to her achieving minor viral fame as “Gorilla Glue Girl” (a sobriquet that she, understandably, did not appreciate). Yet the truth behind many of these challenges was more complex than initial reporting indicated. The Blackout Challenge, for instance, far predates TikTok; the numbers regarding how many kids have died from the challenge, as reported by Women’s Health and many other outlets, are actually sourced from a 2008 CDC press release, which started tracking reports of deaths resulting from the challenge (then called “the choking game”) as far back as 1995. And upon further investigation of National Rape Day and National Shoot Up Your School Day, reporters and researchers discovered that such threats had simply been made up whole cloth, despite many outlets breathlessly reporting them as fact.
It’s hard not to see the moral panic over TikTok “challenges” as anything other than what it is: parental overreactions to sweeping technological advances, exacerbated by a click-hungry media ecosystem desperate for content. Internet interest in the Tide Pod Challenge, for instance, which reportedly encouraged teenagers to ingest detergent (and was actually based on a Weird Twitter meme), reached its apex in early 2018, at a time when apps like Snapchat and Instagram were rapidly becoming omnipresent forces in kids’ lives; the rise of such platforms inevitably is coupled with adults’ realization that they have only a finite amount of control or influence over their kids’ digital lives. With the advent of TikTok, an app that arguably spreads information faster than any platform in history, parents now have even more opportunity to freak out about the content their kids are consuming, even if they don’t have the media literacy skills to understand it — and news outlets are all too willing to exploit this anxiety.
Were parents slightly better equipped to understand the internet, they would know that social media does, in fact, pose many demonstrable dangers. As the recent Facebook whistleblower testimony definitively proved, ample research has shown that the ubiquity of platforms like Instagram has a horrifying impact on adolescents’ mental health and body image, particularly that of adolescent girls, and Big Tech does not seem particularly willing to address this issue anytime soon. TikTok in particular has proven to be a stalwart purveyor of misinformation, with its ultra-powerful algorithm amplifying everything from sex trafficking hoaxes to demonic conspiracy theories. There are plenty of reasons to get mad at TikTok and other social media platforms. But as we turn the corner into 2022, let’s all throw up our hands and acknowledge that the app encouraging kids to electrocute themselves isn’t one of them.