Why Teens Engage in Risky Behavior
If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?
In a blindfold.
If you were doing the Bird Box challenge.
If you are raising your eyebrows at this notion, consider yourself lucky. Or an adult. The Bird Box challenge (named after a movie by the same name) has teens completing tasks, navigating stores, and going about their everyday lives wearing a blindfold. And those are the tame ones. One famous YouTuber walked into traffic. A teen in Utah crashed her car.
Seems like Netflix’s warning tweet – “PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE” – hasn’t done much to instill fear into the hearts of reckless teens seeking the latest thrill.
But We Already Knew Teens Were A Challenge
It was this same demographic that attempted the Tide pod challenge, yielding more than 80 calls to the American Association of Poison Control in January 2018 from teens who reportedly ingested the brightly colored and (duh) poisonous pods. And let’s not forget the Kiki challenge, inspired by a song, which had kids jumping off moving vehicles, and in one case resulted in a shattered skull.
Not all challenges are created equally ridiculous. The mannequin challenge, for example, was pretty harmless. Actually, some parents actually appreciated that one, as it involved freezing in place while being recorded by a moving camera, keeping teens out of circulation for a minute or so.
Honorable mention goes to the ice bucket challenge, which involved dumping a bucket of ice and water over one’s head. That challenge raised over $100 million for the ALS Association, funding research and development of treatment drugs. Pretty impressive, particularly when you compare it to walking blindly into objects for absolutely no purpose other than to impress other immature challenge-takers.
But back to the bridge question. Which at some point in time (likely before the advent of social media) was meant to be posed rhetorically. Why are so many teens engaging in this silly behavior? What are they thinking? (Not much, their parents will tell you.) Why are they following their friends off bridges (or into traffic, or off moving vehicles, but I digress)?
This latest trend of social media challenges is just another manifestation of the teenage tendency to engage in risky behavior just for the sake of some (in this case virtual) applause from their peers. Consider these stats from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report: nearly 90 percent of high school age students rarely or never wear a helmet. Nearly fifty percent text while driving. 30 percent drank alcohol in the last month, and 17 percent rode with a friend who had been drinking.
What Are They Thinking?
As a parent of teens, I am intrigued at what goes on in those developing brains. And that is exactly where I start: in the teen psyche, a dangerous place to be indeed.
According to a Newsweek article on just this subject (“Why Teenagers Get Suckered in by Social Media Dares”; Jessica Firger; May 2016), the brain is comprised of gray matter – neurons involved in thought processing and memory – and white matter – nerve fibers that transmit messages through the brain. Although the brain will have reached 95 percent of its adult size by the time a child is six, gray matter will continue to grow, particularly during adolescence, and along with it brain cells and their connections, also known as synapses. Synaptic pruning, when the brain begins to get rid of weak connections and strengthen its useful connections, begins at puberty. Myelin sheaths connect the remaining links in the brain; this process is not complete until at least age 25. “Synaptic pruning,” writes Firger in her article, “is the reason young people have a much easier time learning new things, such as languages and driving. The problem, though, is that all of this is happening in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain sometimes referred to as the brain’s CEO because it is responsible for big decisions, impulse control and the ability to reason (like a rational adult).”
What this means is that the teenage brain is formatted for learning and trying new experiences but at the same time is lacking the ability to choose those sensibly.
(But I already knew that, says every parent on the planet.)
So here we have Exhibit A, the not-yet-fully-developed teenage brain, seeking out adventure and unable to discern between clever activities and dangerous wastes of time. And now I present you with Exhibit B, the onslaught of hormones that occurs during the teenage years, the stuff of nightmares for anyone who has to spend time with a teenager. One of those hormones is dopamine, the chemical our brains release to signal pleasure before the actual pleasure is experienced. As Alexander Rand, LCSW, noted in a previous issue of the Jewish Echo addressing excessive cell phone use, “When you have many recurrent dopamine releases, your brain becomes used to the feeling, desires it in greater amounts, and will look for opportunities to experience it.” Each view, like, or comment on social media triggers a release of that dopamine, and the sensation of pleasure will override potential concern for safety….or sensibility.
It’s not that teens don’t think at all, though. A study conducted at Cornell University in 2006 showed that teens spend more time than adults contemplating the risks of risky behavior. The problem is that what they perceive as benefits (such as social acceptance) outweigh the negative consequences.
Peer pressure, according to Racheli Goldberger, LCSW, who has worked extensively with teens in her practice as a social worker, is a huge factor in why a teen will engage in silly or risky behavior. There are studies which show that, yes, it’s actually harder to control impulses when your teenage friends are around. The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded one study in which teens played a video driving game. Not surprisingly to us parents, teens who played while their friends were watching took more than twice as many risks than those who played unobserved.
But why all the attention-seeking? Well, Racheli says that when kids don’t feel heard, they may take drastic measures to be noticed. Low self-esteem won’t help the cause, either. “If a teen feels good about himself, he will be less likely to try something silly,” Racheli says. “If he perceives himself as a failure, he will try to prove he’s brave, that he’s not as bad as people think.”
What’s A Parent to Do?
“It’s just a phase.”
(Raise your hand if this is among the worst responses you’ve gotten when asking for advice about a difficulty you’ve experienced with your child.)
The teenage years are, thankfully, a phase. So is, hopefully, any questionable behavior that comes along with them. But as the blessed teens are running around blindfolded into traffic, what are we parents supposed to do? Do we lecture? Threaten? Yell? I may or may not have tried all three, but I can tell you that not one of those tactics works. Nor does tying your teen to his or her bed – JUST KIDDING. Chas v’ shalom.
Racheli gives me her number one advice: listen to your child. She says this is the most important thing in the world when it comes to parenting, and when it comes to parenting teens in particular, it’s even more important.
So, parents, take note: make your child feel heard so he doesn’t try to be heard in an unhealthy way. Sit on the couch with him for ten minutes at the end of the day and keep the dialogue going.
Now, here’s the tricky part. Racheli says that if your child is already engaging in questionable behavior, and especially if he or she lets you know about it during your conversation on the couch, your reaction should be…..nothing. Don’t act angry, anxious, or worried. Keep your face neutral and gather information like an educated consumer.
Here’s why. When your voice takes on an overly anxious tone, your child will try to numb those emotions by withholding. He or she will begin to act like a “parentified child,” shifting his or her focus to you instead of talking about the real problem at hand. Keeping your “poker face” and asking questions in a calm tone will allow your child to freely express his thoughts and concerns without worrying about your reaction.
If your child wants to do something you don’t approve of, turn it into a discussion. For example, if it’s listening to a specific type of music, ask things like, what’s your favorite song and why? If you ask that, your child may choose a song that manifests what he’s feeling. Talk about why this choice of music is important to him and make it clear that you understand. Offer suggestions, not directions. If the behavior in question can result in consequences at school – like being suspended or expelled – ask your child to make a calculation of whether the behavior is worth it. Discuss other options. But keep the conversation open.
Racheli says to take off that “parent hat” for a minute and pretend you’re a teen, so you will be less judgmental and more understanding. Remember, this “phase” may feel like the most important thing to your teen. In a situation where your teen has done something, he thinks is funny, use humor to say things like, “What were you thinking when you jumped off that car?” with a half-smile to elicit a chuckle rather than a retort. Restore your child’s faith in himself and encourage self-affirming behavior and thoughts.
Even when that parenting hat is off, though, you’re a parent, not a friend. You can send messages to your child that are empathetic but still impactful and thought-provoking. Racheli says her conversation with a teen about some questionable behavior would go something like this: “I was a kid too, once, and I think I know where you are coming from. I get what it feels like to do whatever you want, especially when you know you are going to be unconditionally loved forever. Just be smart, be an individual, and follow your intuition.”
So, to all teens out there: Be smart. Be an individual. Follow your intuition.
Smart, individual, and intuitive people do not jump off bridges.
Even if all their friends do.
Sidebar: When It’s No Joke
Racheli Goldberger, LCSW, warns parents that while open conversation and affirmation are important, it is crucial to know the difference between essentially harmless or silly and truly dangerous behaviors. And with any dangerous or harmful behavior, the immediate response is the same: SAFETY FIRST. “Do whatever you need to do to make your child feel safe,” says Racheli. “That can mean running to the hospital or treatment center or finding a therapist. Every situation is different, but the most important thing is to address your child’s safety before anything else.”
In some cases, dangerous or harmful behavior can be the manifestation of trauma. “Trauma,” she explains, “can be physical or emotional, and it makes you feel like you have no control at all. Sometimes acting out is a teen’s way of trying to regain control of his life.” A sudden red flag – such as purposely failing at school or dressing in a radically different way – can be a teen’s way of sending a message to his parents that he’s been through a trauma but is unable to express that in words.
A Bird(Brain)’s Eye View
Just kidding, teens. You’re not birdbrains. This was just too good of a title to pass up. Special thanks to the anonymous small group of teens who answered my questions (bribes may have been involved but I promised not to mention that).
Adult (Me): What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
Teen 1: I’ve driven a golf cart while under the influence.
Teen 2: I climbed a rocky mountain without any protective gear.
Teen 3: I drove close to 100 mph.
Teen 4: I agreed to get into a bathtub full of ice and not get out until I answered three questions.
Teen 5: I’m pretty boring. I climbed through the roof to get to the other side of a building. Is that dangerous enough?
Me: Yes. What motivated you to try this kind of stuff?
Teen 5: My counselor said not to, so I had to try it.
Teen 1: It was fun.
Teen 3: Everyone was doing it.
Teen 2: Sometimes, things just happen so fast, you don’t really think about it. It’s not like I ever made a decision and said, “All right, I’m going to do something dumb now.”
Me: Do you think it can come from insecurity?
Teen 1: A lot of people just do dumb stuff because they want to have fun, that’s all-it’s not that deep.
Teen 2: I think an insecure person might be the one to start something crazy to get attention – and then everyone else will follow if it looks fun or cool.
Teen 4: I actually think it’s the opposite. I think all the little followers are insecure. It’s like they want to show off – look at me, I’m a daredevil! Because they don’t usually get noticed.
Me: What can parents say that would change your behavior?
Teen 1: Nothing.
Teen 2: I agree. Absolutely nothing.
Teen 4: I think I’d realize on my own and feel bad and want to change at a certain point. I don’t need speeches.
Teen 5: I have nothing to change.
Me: How important is social media?
Teen 3 (apparently the only one who has social media): Pretty important.
Me: Would you do anything to get a like?
Teen 3: It depends. I won’t do something especially for it.
Teen 2: Everyone knows that what you see isn’t necessarily real.
Teen 5: My friend showed me her plate of food and a photo of it she posted on Instagram. They looked nothing alike. I heard that they are going to add a tag that shows when a photo has been filtered.
Teen 4: I don’t think it’s all fake. Yeah, if someone posts food (if you’re into that kind of stuff) I can see how it would be fake. But if someone posts a picture on vacation, that’s real.
Me: What do you guys think of these crazy challenges?
Teen 5: Don’t do them if they are dangerous or risky.
Teen 1: They’re all dumb.
Teens 2, 3, and 4: We agree.
Me: So why did we all do the ice bucket challenge?
Teen 5: It was fun, safe, and for a good cause.
Teen 3: You can’t say no to everything.
Me: Would you stop your friend from doing something silly?
Teen 1: It depends how silly.
Teen 2: Yeah. If it was something really dangerous, obviously I’d say something.
Teen 3: I’ve stopped people, but only when it was really bad.
Teen 4: It sounds good to say yes, but I don’t know. Sometimes that’s really hard to do. I don’t know.
Teen 5: I’m gonna go with yes.
Me: If all your friends jumped off a bridge would you jump too?
Teens 1, 2, 4, and 5: No
Teen 3: It depends
Me: On what?
Teen 3: On how high the bridge is. Don’t ask me about cliffs, though. I’ve jumped off cliffs.