Celebrity deaths: TikTok prank 'killing' Michael B. Jordan must end – USA TODAY

Andy Cohen is not dead. Michael B. Jordan is not dead. But if you weren’t paying attention to the news and someone told you they were, would you believe them?
It’s the latest trend engulfing TikTok feeds, with the hashtag #celebritydeathprank at more than 200 million views on the platform. Kids, in particular, are pranking their parents.
But not everyone enjoys the trend. The videos come at a cost, psychologists say, potentially traumatizing those pranked. Parents have a responsibility to talk with and set examples for their children before jokes go too far.
“We have to get to a place where we bridge this gap with this empathy deficit that we are especially seeing with our children,” says T.M. Robinson-Mosley, counseling psychologist.
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Kids are more hyperconnected to each other than ever on social platforms and assign value based on likes and popularity. “This constant approval seeking online is connected to these attempts to post something that goes viral,” Mosley says.
Don’t let the laughter in the background of these videos fool you – real sensitivities linger.
“It’s easy to see how some may dismiss this kind prank by a child as harmless fun,” says New York psychologist Joseph Cilona. “However, for some fans, the death of a celebrity can be an emotionally significant and traumatic event. This arguably innocent prank can result in real emotional trauma.”
People can thank parasocial relationships for that, i.e. developing one-sided relationships with celebrities that can rival real connections.
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“In many cases, the amount of time someone ‘interacts’ as fan of a beloved celebrity can actually supersede the amount of time they spend with some of their real life relationships,” Cilona says.
Plus, “sudden, unexpected death is traumatic, whether it’s with someone that you know, or someone that you revere, the fact that that person is there one day and gone, the next second is terrifying, that in and of itself is traumatic,” Mosley says.
Benjamin Goldman, a mental health therapist, suggests this type of prank could make a parent even confront their own mortality: “Maybe a prank about a parent’s favorite celebrity dying is cruel, because it really preys on the parent’s anxiety about their death, their loss of youth, their loss of culture, their loss of cultural significance.”
Not all pranks are the same
Of course, there’s plenty of room for pranks to go around – even this one, where some parents seem to be more in on the joke.
“We don’t want to call all forms of pranking, or all forms of comedy cruel or dark or ill-intentioned because there’s a lot to be gained from comedy as a form of connection,” Goldman says.
It’s more about the intention behind said prank.
“We see that as maybe a way of undermining the relationship or poking at the power dynamics between a caregiver and the person who’s given care to,” Goldman says.
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Either way, it doesn’t have to mean someone lacks empathy.
“Pranks in general can be cruel if you take them too far,” says Regine Galanti, clinical psychologist. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an empathy deficit or something wrong.”
For example: How is this different than Jimmy Kimmel’s segment on parents telling their kids they ate all their Halloween candy? As long as the hurt is quick, maybe the harm could be too. “I don’t have a stronger reaction to this prank than other pranks,” Galanti says. “But I could see the argument that pranks where you’re making someone else the butt of a joke are not nice.”
Harm – and pleasure in said harm – may simply come anyway despite intention: “Sometimes wanting to put other people down or going viral for something cruel can seem like it’s going to make you feel better about yourself because you’re going to get that kind of instant dopamine hit,” Mosley says.
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