Everyone Doing It for The Likes: Examining Problematic Risk-Taking Behavior on Teenage Social Media

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Teenage social media usage is at an all-time high and has become a necessity. In 2022, a survey by We Are Social estimated that its teenage demographic aged 16-24 years old spends the most time on social media compared to any age bracket, averaging more than 3 hours a day, equal for boys and girls. 

Spending time on social media to connect with more people is generally not a problem for most people. But parents need to remember that today’s adolescents grew up with smartphones and tablets — hence, they are called digital natives. The current generation of teens lives in a media-saturated world, where social media is not only for entertainment but also for almost their entire social life. 

Some examples of these social activities are challenges. These are popular social media activities meant to gather people with the same interests; generally, social media does that. Trends usually involve harmless actions such as dancing, singing, arts, and innocuous pranks. But sometimes, it crosses the line into dangerous territory.

This article will delve into various cases of social media trends taken too far by teens, and provide insights about the teen brain on social media. Is it too late for parents to equip their teens with the skills to combat the negative trends on social media? Find out the answer below.

Examining negative risk-taking behaviors on teenage social media

When you think of teenage risk-taking behavior, the first thing that comes to mind is alcohol, drugs, fake IDs, and unprotected sex. After all, that was what the ‘cool’ kids did back then. With the advancement of technology, teenage risk-taking has become a more complex situation. 

An article by APA stated that the rates of usual teenage risk factors such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, hazardous driving, and even juvenile crime rates have been declining from the early 1990s to 2015. Do teenagers know better now? Or has the trend just moved on to another platform instead of declining?

A 2023 report on teenager social media usage showed that 1 in 5 teens reported using social media ‘almost constantly’ — with TikTok accessed by 63% of teen users. This is causing problems.

Spending a long time on social media is associated with high-risk behavior, such as non-suicidal self-injury. An example of said self-injurious behavior on TikTok is the 2022 “Angel of Death” challenge in Indonesia, where teenagers dared one another to jump in front of moving trucks, hoping that the driver would stop or swerve around them. At least two teens have died in this ‘challenge.’ 

Social media has become the main focus of scrutiny for these death-defying challenges, and a few of them have come and gone. The Tide-Pod challenge — where teens dare each other to eat detergent — has taken the lives of at least 10 teens.

So, why do teens partake in such potentially harmful behavior? Research showed that the teen’s brain areas that control self-control aren’t fully mature yet. So, most of the time, they don’t consider the long-term risks or repercussions. Especially when presented with potential positive cues in peer groups. 

This, in particular, is in line with less life-threatening trends, with research finding that frequent social media use is associated with increased alcohol consumption, drug use, smoking, sexual risk behaviors, and even gambling.

Positive effects of social media trends

Not all social media challenges or trends are negative. There are a few positive effects of social media on youth. One example is raising awareness about diseases, like the Ice Bucket Challenge. This challenge is harmless: People pour water filled with ice near their heads. Pouring cold water on yourself even makes you more resistant to sickness.

This shows that when done right and responsibly, social media trends could positively impact millions of people. 

But how can you differentiate between a potentially dangerous trend from a fun and harmless one? As a parent, you can’t exactly hack your teens’ socials, as it intrudes on their privacy. What you can do, though, is provide insights about how to pick and choose trends to follow.

Good behavior doesn’t happen overnight; there’s a need for mutual respect for your teen’s autonomy and decision-making skills from your end, too. Before that, let’s understand one fact about peer sensitivity during adolescence.

Teens are at the height of their peer sensitivity, where a single ‘Like’ could mean peer approval. An interesting study portrays this phenomenon, where they showed the teen participants two innocuous photos.

Each picture is attached to its Likes count. The researcher asked teens to simply like the picture or swipe through it. The researcher concluded that the more popular photo (showing more likes) received more likes from the participants than the other photos. These findings imply that social media likes impact teens’ brains and behavior

Understanding and managing teen social media behavior

Children and teenagers are the best sponges for learning; they absorb what they see and do it. So teach your children how to manage social media by modeling responsible social media behavior even at home. Here are some tips.

Ensuring open communication with teens

Research in China observed that parent-child conflicts are associated with more risk-taking behaviors. This is caused by heightened emotional circuits in the brain, which cause anger, resulting in teens being more involved in risk-taking behavior impulsively. 

So, not involving your children in the discussion is a no-go, because it will make them feel unseen and unheard, and that is the last thing you want to do to them. 

Read more: Parental Influence on Adolescent Identity Development 

Clear communication between parents and teens is proven to be a protective factor against risk-taking behavior. With parents being more supportive of their teens’ growing autonomy, teens, in return, are more willing to listen to the advice and more open to their parents. Here are a few tips to get to them emotionally:

  • Hold their attention. Engage them with talks about their day; do not barrage them with questions about their life just yet. Try to approach the situation calmly, ask about their day, and engage them. Asking and shouting questions or being critical of them early on will just drive them away and more likely result in more defiance.
  • Listen intently. Instead of being critical or cutting them off mid-story, listen to what they have to say first. Listening provides a clear understanding and context regarding your teen’s troubles. Once they are finished, you can ask them if they want your advice on this topic.
  • Respect your teen’s privacy. It’s very tempting to just confiscate their phone and go through all their social media, but in doing so, you are sacrificing your teens’ trust for you. Instead of that, give your teen some trust and opt for a lecture on safety on the internet.

Setting healthy boundaries

Your teen began to care more about their peers’ perception of them rather than what you think. This includes their interaction on social media; being accepted is an impactful experience for teens. This could range from various domains, such as not getting into the latest trends or even just not being cool enough on social media. And your teens feel that they have to adhere to these so-called norms to be one of the ‘cool kids.’

When the parents directly said no without explaining, teens took it up by themselves to defy their parents. Our role as parents is to help our teens set healthy boundaries amid social media trends. Here’s a few tips you can follow:

  • Share and discuss your fears with your teen. Sit down with your teens and discuss both perspectives on social media trends and usage overall. Allow you and your teen to speak about each other’s thoughts without being defensive
  • Compromise. When you and your teen don’t meet eye-to-eye on boundaries with social media, negotiate with your teen. Try to find a middle ground; with that, you also help encourage teen autonomy and help them to make their own decisions. 
  • Let your teen make their own decisions. Teenagers are not children — not yet adults, true — but they want to be treated as such. Let them have their autonomy, let them make their decisions about certain boundaries. Sit down with your teen and discuss some rules and boundaries, always explaining why before outright banning them.
  • Leverage the power of saying “no”. Lastly, equip your teen with the best skill to prevent peer pressure — saying “no.” Teach your teen to stand up for themselves. Help your teen understand that their stance on the matter is as important as their peers – so don’t be afraid to say no to things or behavior you both don’t agree on

Encouraging positive online engagement

In hindsight, social media seems like a very dangerous place for your teens. But when used responsibly and mindfully, social media also has its positive side.

A few examples of the positive effects of social media on youth are the improvement of students’ academic achievement. Social media could also be a source of positive emotions, such as a sense of closeness with old and new friends.

Especially during post-COVID, social media is almost a must for everyone. Therefore, instead of banning social media, promote healthy and mindful use of social media to your teens. Here are a few tips you can practice in promoting online engagement to your teens:

  • Be a role model for your teen. Sometimes, it’s easy to overlook our own habits with social media, not realizing that our teen picked up those habits from us
  • Set rules and limits as needed. For example, try to implement some rules, such as no phone during dinner, so you and your teen can get a break from social media and be involved in face-to-face talk. Before implementing said rules, always negotiate with your teens so they also feel involved in the decision-making process.
  • Monitor your teen’s account. Consider following your teens’ social media; as they age, you can monitor it less than before, depending on your teen’s maturity level or online environment. Remember, do not be disruptive and intrusive to your teen’s social media (better to keep a low profile).
  • Explain what’s appropriate and what’s not. No matter how much you want to trust your teen’s judgment, remember to always explain some social media acts that could potentially put your teen in danger. When your teens have an understanding of your fears, they understand that you just want to protect them. 

In conclusion

During this time, it’s unavoidable to have teens using and being influenced by social media. 

As a parent, it could be concerning to see so many news reports about teens acting out risky challenges on social media. After all, research shows that teens’ brains are highly sensitive to positive cues from their environment— hence their need for peer approval through these types of social media interactions.

What parents can do is educate and involve teens in the risks or benefits of using social media. One of the best protective factors against problematic behavior in teens is clear communication between parents and teens. Guide your teen in using social media mindfully, and do not be intrusive to your teen’s socials. Recognize your teen’s autonomy, help them set their boundaries, and be a positive role model. These will help your teen to be more cautious about the negative side of social media.

If you would like to see more resources on adolescent risk-taking behavior, check out the Parenting Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Parenting Science Labs today.

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