Date of Award

December 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Industrial Engineering

Committee Member

Kapil Chalil Madathil

Committee Member

Anand Gramopadhye

Committee Member

Patrick Rosopa

Committee Member

Kevin Taaffe

Committee Member

Heidi Zinzow


Recently, adolescents’ and young adults’ use of social media has significantly increased. While this new landscape of cyberspace offers young internet users many benefits, it also exposes them to numerous risks. One such phenomenon receiving limited research attention is the advent and propagation of viral social media challenges. Several of these challenges entail self-harming behavior, which combined with their viral nature, poses physical and psychological risks for the participants and the viewers. One example of these viral social media challenges that could potentially be propagated through social media is the Blue Whale Challenge (BWC). In the initial study we investigate how people portray the BWC on social media and the potential harm this may pose to vulnerable populations. We first used a thematic content analysis approach, coding 60 publicly posted YouTube videos, 1,112 comments on those videos, and 150 Twitter posts that explicitly referenced BWC. We then deductively coded the YouTube videos based on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) Messaging guidelines. We found that social media users post about BWC to raise awareness and discourage participating, express sorrow for the participants, criticize the participants, or describe a relevant experience. Moreover, we found most of the videos on YouTube violate at least 50% of the SPRC safe and effective messaging guidelines. These posts might have the problematic effect of normalizing the BWC through repeated exposure, modeling, and reinforcement of self-harming and suicidal behavior, especially among vulnerable populations, such as adolescents.

A second study conducted a systematic content analysis of 180 YouTube videos (~813 minutes total length), 3,607 comments on those YouTube videos, and 450 Twitter posts to explore the portrayal and social media users’ perception of three viral social media-based challenges (i.e., BWC, Tide Pod Challenge (TPC), and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC)). We identified five common themes across the challenges, including: education and awareness, criticizing the participants and blaming the victims, detailed information about the participants, giving viewers a tutorial on how to participate, and understanding seemingly senseless online behavior. We found that the purpose of posting about an online challenge varies based on the inherent risk involved in the challenge itself. However, analysis of the YouTube comments showed that previous experience and exposure to online challenges appear to affect the perception of other challenges in the future.

The third study investigated the beliefs that lead adolescents and young adults to participate in these activities by analyzing the ALS IBC to represent challenges with minimally harmful behaviors intended to support philanthropic endeavors and the Cinnamon Challenge (CC), to represent those involving harmful behaviors that may culminate in injury. We conducted a retrospective quantitative study with a total of 471 participants between the ages of 13 and 35 who either had participated in the ALS IBC or the CC or had never participated in any online challenge. We used binomial logistic regression models to classify those who participated in ALS IBC or CC versus those who didn’t with the beliefs from the Integrated Behavioral Model (IBM) as predictors. Our findings showed that both CC and ALS IBC participants had significantly greater positive emotional responses, value for the outcomes of the challenge, and expectation of the public to participate in the challenge in comparison to individuals who never participated in any challenge. In addition, only CC participants perceived positive public opinion about the challenge and perceived the challenge to be easy with no harmful consequences, in comparison to individuals who never participated in any challenge. The findings from this study were used to develop interventions based on knowledge of how the specific items making up each construct apply specifically to social media challenges.

In the last study, we showed how agent-based modeling (ABM) might be used to investigate the effect of educational intervention programs to reduce social media challenges participation at multiple levels- family, school, and community. In addition, we showed how the effect of these educational based interventions can be compared to social media-based policy interventions. Our model takes into account the “word of mouth” effect of these interventions which could either decrease participation in social media challenge further than expected or unintentionally cause others to participate.



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