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Thanks to a bizarre new online challenge, it’s not just the lactose intolerant that need to fear cheese.

If you’re a parent in the digital age, you’re probably familiar with at least a few of the bizarre hashtag challenges making their rounds on the internet. One of the most widely publicized, “Momo,” recently reared its head again in February. Momo is a creepy character and the #momochallenge was reportedly some sort of suicide or self-harm game targeting children. Though it was declared a hoax, Momo’s unsetting image began showing up in news feeds after it went viral — and it caused more than a few nightmares among young, impressionable minds (my daughter included). News organizations told people not to panic, but that didn’t stop one little boy in New Mexico from calling 911, convinced Momo was out to get him.

And while Momo might have been a hoax, there were recently some very real videos targeted towards kids on YouTube that contained instructions to self harm. Worse yet, those same videos appeared on YouTube Kids — a platform that’s supposed to serve up child-safe content — in late 2018 before Dr. Free N. Ness of PediMom reported them and had them removed.

These kinds of challenges and videos are surely troubling, especially when they target children — but #momochallenge isn’t the most concerning hashtag I’ve seen floating around in the past few weeks. I was bothered on a whole new level when I dug into something else that had been trending recently; in mid-February I had a “humankind is doomed” feeling when I saw the #cheesechallenge.

A Cheesy Challenge to Parents

Scrolling through Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I saw a video with a thumbnail of a child in a high chair. I let the video play, expecting to see something cute. Instead, the adult behind the camera throws a piece of processed cheese onto the baby’s face with so much force that it stuck on its nose and mouth. And then the adult laughs. Clicking on the hashtag #cheesechallenge, I learned that tossing cheese at your baby’s face has inexplicably gone viral. In some of the videos, the child seems amused and even snacks on the cheese. In others, the kid loses it.

You might wonder what would possess a parent to do this, and the answer is simple: it’s all about the “likes”. The cheese challenge wouldn’t exist without social media. It’s the vehicle behind this kind of bizarre phenomenon because it exploits our human desire to belong.

Flinging Dairy for the Feed

As humans, we are hardwired to find a community and seek a sense of belonging. In their landmark 1995 study, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachment as Foundational Human Motivation,” Baumeister and Leary concluded that people need to feel a part of something. The assertion wasn’t new — and carried on work from Freud to Maslow — but this was the first empirical data that showed how belonging can affect our emotions and personal growth.

The urge to belong is so ingrained that it can make us to do some not-so-nice things in order to fit in. This is why people get caught up in bullying and hazing — all in the name of social validation. Social media platforms play right into this desire for community. They also open up a worldwide audience, organizing people around a common hashtag. Social platforms even keep score of how much we “belong” in the form of shares, likes, comments and retweets. These give us the satisfaction of knowing others have seen our photo or watched our video. The anticipation of those rewards not only gives us satisfaction, it gives us a hit of dopamine, making it addictive — and keeping us coming back for more. And when people are addicted, they’ll find some unconventional ways of getting those likes.

I don’t think parents are throwing cheese at their children’s faces for their own enjoyment. I don’t even think they’re doing it for the enjoyment of anyone in the room (and I’m pretty sure I’d ask my friend what the hell he was doing if he threw a slice of cheese at his baby). The behaviour is really no different than what happens in the schoolyard, but with one key difference: the validation craved by these parents happens solely online, through social media. What I really struggle with is that parents are doing this to their own children, whom they are supposed to love and protect — all for the hope of a reaction from strangers.

Who Wins in the Cheese Challenge?

Maybe it’s all harmless fun, but let’s not forget that the butt of this “joke” is a baby. A lot of the babies seem shocked in the videos and I don’t blame them. Imagine if you were enjoying a nice lunch, only to be blindsided by a piece of sweaty cheese. If it was a stranger who’d thrown it, you’d likely be furious. If it was a loved one, you’d probably be confused or hurt.

Social media — and these types of dopamine-fueled feedback cycles — aren’t going anywhere, so we probably haven’t seen the last strange hashtag challenge. When you take a step back though, it becomes clear that the only winners in these challenges are the social platforms. They watch their daily and monthly active user count increase — which is the currency of their trade.

And the losers? Probably humankind — but definitely the babies. They are the unwilling punchline of an internet joke made by their own parents. They’re also immortalized online with processed cheese on their faces — and the internet is forever. When our kids come of age, they have to deal with the fact that their milestones, funny faces and meltdowns are often posted on social media before they’re old enough to consent. As a result, most children already have a massive social footprint by the time they create their own accounts — and coming face-to-face with everything your family has posted about you can be a surreal or even devastating experience. Knowing all this, it’s a good habit to step into your kid’s shoes before you post something about them. How would you feel if you were on the other end of that Kraft single?

If we have any hope of teaching our kids how to use the internet responsibly, we can’t participate in this kind of thing ourselves. We can’t use our babies for likes — and we can’t react to these posts even if it’s to condemn them (because after all, that’s still engagement). If there is no audience, there is no impetus.

– Sean, @thatdigitaldad