Were you planning a trip to Nevada this weekend to “see them aliens?”
You might be aware of a viral meme that encouraged people to raid the highly classified U.S. Air Force base known as Area 51 in Lincoln County, Nev. — allegedly home to national secrets about UFOs and visitors from outer space. Though it started as a social media joke, the meme spiraled out of control. Its creator received visits from the FBI, and the event’s Facebook guest list received RSVPs from more than 2 million people.
While it may seem like a stretch, the infamous meme created by 20-year-old Matty Roberts is a small window into an overwhelming problem: how online trends influence teenagers to risk their health — even their lives — for recognition on social media.
Trends have been a part of our society since the beginning of time, be it a dance competition or a potentially fatal challenge. Being popular on social media is the main reason why trends target teens, experts say. Our generation’s culture revolves around the idea of standing out among others, and many teens will do all sorts of wild things to net attention: eat something disgusting, go streaking in public or attempt a neck-breaking move on a skateboard.
Recent Santa Fe High School graduate Lucas Garcia, 18, who now attends the University of New Mexico, thinks of himself as an online influencer.
“It is essential for teens to want to have some kind of recognition whether it be on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram or Facebook,” Garcia said. “We always want to be the popular one who gets the most attention around others, and the ones who seek those qualities love to have the satisfaction of having done something beyond reason for popularity.”
According to a study from the parenting group Parenting In Progress, pop culture strongly influences teens on many levels, mainly psychologically. Additionally, it negatively affects how teens mature.
Peer pressure also ties into the trend phenomenon. The pressure to “be cool” is often the reason kids get into drugs or alcohol, as well as outside their comfort zone to try something dangerous, many teens admit. The hype revolving around the recently canceled “raid” upon the country’s top-secret military site is a prime example, some experts say.
While some thought the Area 51 raid, scheduled for Sept. 20, was a laughable social media troll that no one would attend due to its severe danger, it wouldn’t have been the first time in history that teens have done the unthinkable due to peer pressure or a need for online recognition.
In early 2018, the Tide Pods challenge gained major attention when teens harmed themselves by ingesting packages of laundry detergent. Over 85 teens reportedly ingested these laundry detergent pods so they could have the satisfaction of having survived the experience and gain attention from others.
There have also been more lighthearted trends, like dance challenges to songs such as Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and the “Harlem Shake” (go ahead, Google it). Sometimes trends can influence people to eat healthier and take care of their bodies. On the other hand, online trends and posts can lead young people to question their body types and unfairly compare themselves to others.
Capital High School freshman Haden Gonzales said such online trends lead teens to “try and replicate it and look cool.” He said he doesn’t see how this can be risky.
But the Area 51 event was certainly a risk. Dubbed “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” on Facebook, the raid spurred folks to book flights and hotel rooms in the Lincoln County area. This drew national attention, causing some Nevada counties to prepare to declare a state of emergency and prompting the Air Force to put out a statement that it would proceed to open fire against anyone who dares to attempt storming the base. Earlier this week, the event was canceled.
Still, some wonder if folks will attend.
“I don’t think a million people are going to show up even though they claim to, yet I do think there will be quite a few people there,” Garcia said. “Most people will face reality and realize that something like [raiding Area 51] is too stupid for there own good, yet it’s too big for it to just flop.”
Gonzales agreed, but said, “There are some people that are dumb enough to do it.”
Lincoln Byrd is a junior at Santa Fe High School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.