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Potentially 'life-threatening' TikTok penny challenge sparks warning from Alberta mom

A challenge a child in southern Alberta saw and copied from a social media platform has a mother speaking out to warn other parents.

Social media expert says deleting app a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem

A challenge a child in southern Alberta saw and copied from a social media platform has a mother speaking out to warn other parents. 1:29

A challenge a child in southern Alberta saw and copied from a social media platform has a mother speaking out to warn other parents.

"It was super scary and we are just so glad he is OK," Starla Hoffe told CBC News.

"But it's really not good he saw life-threatening challenges on TikTok and followed them."

TikTok is a popular video-based social media platform.

Hoffe, who lives in Carstairs, said her son confessed to doing something that she had not heard about previously.

"So my son came running up from the basement and he threw a [cell phone] charger onto the counter, a blackened charger, with a penny indented into the prongs," she recalled. "He said he saw a challenge on TikTok, and he followed the challenge. It was to take a charger and drop a penny into the charger plugged into the wall."

  • Watch as an Alberta mother describes what happened when her son watched and then copied a challenge he saw on the social media site TikTok, in the video at the top of this story.
Starla Hoffe's son recently came to her and admitted copying a challenge he saw on a social media platform. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"So I ran downstairs and sure enough, the outlet is blackened. He said a spark shot out of it that was three inches long."

She thanked her son for telling her and learned after talking to an electrician the danger could have gone beyond the charred charger and electrical outlet to the wiring behind the wall.

"The damage can start a fire later," Hoffe said. "It was really serious, what happened."

The TikTok app was taken off her son's phone, she added.

'This isn't a TikTok problem'

A social media expert says the app is secondary; it's the incident that should be addressed — and two-way communication is the best way to do it.

"This isn't a TikTok problem," said Jo Phillips with Jo(e) Social Media, an agency based out of Lacombe, Alta.

"This is a kid that did a stupid thing and blaming TikTok for it, is not the answer."

Phillips says she and her partner have talked with and listened to more than 27,000 children since 2015 about some of the dangers with social media.

And deleting an application when a child reports a problem, she said, isn't the answer.

"When we take a platform away when they do something stupid, then they won't report when bad things happen to them with social media," Phillips said.

"Kids stop asking for help, because the parents instinctively take away the platform and then kids can get in deeper and deeper. That's where we see things like predators stepping in and all of those really serious problems."

Parents have no first-hand experience

Part of the challenge here, she said, is parents are dealing with something they didn't experience first-hand when they were young.

"How do you understand something you have never experienced?" Phillips asks.

"The only way we can understand it is by asking our kids and actually listening to them rather that Googling or listening from another adult's perspective. Talking about this, they don't know why we are worried because this has always been their life. In fact, we as parents started it for them by putting those first photos and videos of them out there."

Meanwhile, Hoffe says it's a wake up call for her family and maybe others.

"You don't think your kid is going to do something like this," Hoffe said.

"Before the days of cellphones and social media, kids were still doing stuff, finding stuff to do that was dangerous or stupid things like that. But I don't think that kids need to be seeing these ideas online and on these apps."

With files from Helen Pike and Joel Dryden

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