Of Cigs And Selfies: Teens Imitate Risky Behavior Shared Online

Mar 9, 2014
Originally published on March 10, 2014 6:59 am

Teenagers put a lot of stock in what their peers are doing, and parents are forever trying to push back against that influence. But with the advent of social media, hanging out with the wrong crowd can include not just classmates, but teenagers thousands of miles away on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

"Kids partying, generally two to three in a picture, raising their glasses, cups, or beer cans," says Thomas Valente, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, describing a typical photo shared by teenagers.

Valente is trying to figure out how much emotional weight those sorts of online images carry when it comes to risky behaviors. To do that, he and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,500 10th-graders who attended high schools in southern California.

They asked students how many of their friends posted photos of themselves smoking or drinking. Then they asked students about their own behavior after viewing the images.

Students who saw images of partying with comments posted by friends were about 20 percent more likely to become drinkers or smokers themselves over the next few months, the study found. The results were published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

That online influence still pales compared to face-to-face influence, Valente says. But unlike more intimate friends, you can have hundreds, even thousands of online friends. And the comments and photos are delivered in seconds.

In years past it would take quite a while for cultures to change, according to Susan Lipkins, a clinical psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y. Not anymore. "Now, because of the Internet we see that worldwide cultures are changing at warp speed."

And teenagers often exaggerate behavior when they imitate it, Lipkins says. "They want to equal it and make it their own by increasing the danger, risk, sexualization, violence, aggression."

That makes it difficult to transmit more gentle values like empathy and compassion, Lipkins says. But bottom line, it's parents who still hold the most influence when it comes to these values.

"I ask parents, when I speak to them, I say 'OK, so there was a car accident; what did you do? Did you stop and help? Did you call 911? Or did you drive by and say; boy I'm glad it's not me?' That's a very mild example of how we teach our kids what to do," she says.

It's equally important to talk with your children about what they view online, Valente says, and put those images in context.

"Know who they're friends with and make sure you have conversations with them about what they're seeing and doing so that they properly interpret it," he says, "so they don't come away from these experiences thinking 'Oh my gosh, if I don't go out partying and drinking heavily every weekend I'm not going to be popular!' "

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now let's turn to the other end of the age spectrum. A recently study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health looks at how much teens are influenced by their peers online. As you might expect, the answer is quite a bit.

NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on what that can mean and what parents might be able to do about it.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: It's probably the most popular way teens talk to each other today - online comments and photos, which is why researchers from the University of Southern California wanted to know how much kids were influenced by those postings when it comes to risky behaviors, like smoking or drinking.

Researcher and public health specialist, Thomas Valente describes the type of photo's he's talking about.

THOMAS VALENTE: Kids partying, you know, generally two or three in a picture, raising their glasses or raising their cups or their beer cans, and then posting those pictures online and then writing things underneath it, like having a great time, you know, here at the party, and things like that.

NEIGHMOND: Valente surveyed more than 1,500 - 10th grade students in high schools in Southern California. He asked them how many friends posted photos of themselves smoking or drinking. Then, he asked the students about their own activities over the next six months.

VALENTE: For students who have friends who are partying online, they're more likely to become drinkers and smokers over time.

NEIGHMOND: About 20 percent more likely. Now Valente points out that online influence is still not nearly as great as face-to-face influence. But the difference is relative. Unlike more intimate friends, you can have hundreds, even thousands of online friends. And the comments and photo's they post are delivered in seconds.

DR. SUSAN LIPKINS: Typically, it would take awhile, long time for cultures to change.

NEIGHMOND: Susan Lipkins is in private practice in New York state. She says trends like dances, for example, can spread with near immediate speed. Now because of the Internet, we see that worldwide cultures are changing at warp speed. So that everywhere - not just the United States - kids and people are doing things and the culture - or the ability, that desire to do that and repeat and enhance it goes so quickly that we can't even keep track of it.

Add to that a teenager's need to separate from parents and other authority figures often by imitating their peers and then exaggerating.

LIPKINS: They want to equal it and make it their own by increasing the danger, or the risk, or increasing the sexualization, increasing the violence or aggression. And in a way, it's an act that shows who they are, that they can either belong to that group or be better than that group; that there's a competitive nature to it.

NEIGHMOND: A competition often exacerbated by society in general, aggressive confrontational talk shows, for example, or the winner-takes-all mentality of many reality shows.

This makes it difficult to transmit more gentle values, like empathy and compassion, says Lipkins, who adds that parents are still the most powerful influence when it comes to those values.

LIPKINS: I ask parents when I speak to them, I say, OK, so there was a car accident? What did you do? Did you stop and help? Did you call 911? Or did you just pass by and say, boy, I'm glad it wasn't me. And I think that's like, you know, a very mild example of how we teach our kids what to do.

NEIGHMOND: And boosting a child's confidence about themselves and about right and wrong is pretty much the only defense parents have against powerful online influences.

Researcher Valente says talk with your kids. Put risky behaviors that they view online into context.

VALENTE: Know that they're going online. Know who they're friends with. Then make sure you have conversations with them about what they're seeing and what they're doing, so that they properly interpret it and so that they don't come away from these experiences thinking, oh my gosh, if I don't go out partying and drinking heavily every weekend I'm not going to be popular.

NEIGHMOND: Ground your teenager, he says. Help them interpret risky behavior messages and images in a reasonable and responsible way.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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