What would ever propel someone to eat laundry detergent? Stranger still, what entices thousands of others to follow suit? The Tide Pod Challenge is just the latest in weird—and dangerous—dares that tweens and teens take on. (Remember #CinammonChallenge, #FiresprayChallenge or #EraserChallenge?) While there are several social and developmental factors that make kids more likely to try stupid things, there are things you can do to improve the odds your kids will be able to resist the temptation.
Need for connection Human beings are all wired with a desire to connect with others and form groups that give us a feeling of belonging, but this yearning is especially strong in the years preceding adulthood. And similar-age role models, or peers, have a significant influence on teens—even more so than their parents.
This peer group used to be limited to kids from the neighbourhood, classroom, club, or sports team. But as Tony DeBono, clinical psychologist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. notes, “with the advent of social media, the way we see communities and groups has expanded exponentially, especially for young people.” That enormous network of connections—many of which may be superficial—allow trends to spread like wildfire.
“Sometimes the term that’s used is contagion,” DeBono says. “Somebody posts something online, and all of a sudden it becomes a dare or challenge that groups of people start to perpetuate, and we see a quick boom.” Whether online or in real life, people in groups can begin to think similarly, and, because they fear being rejected if they don’t fall in step, “may end up doing things they regret,” he explains. While this can happen at any age, research suggests that teens are more distressed than adults by social exclusion.
Still-maturing brains There are also several things happening in the pre-teen and teen brain that contribute to risk-taking and impulsive behaviour. For one thing, it’s wired to seek new experiences to facilitate the rapid learning that’s occurring. But because parts of the brain that govern complex decision-making are still under construction, teens might not fully think through the consequences of their actions.
“There’s an enormous amount of development that happens during adolescence, which continues on into early adulthood,” say DeBono, particularly when it comes to a type of complex thinking that’s called executive function. “That includes things like decision-making, impulse control, holding things in your memory, and thinking about the future. There are lots of elements of executive function that don’t come online all together.”
At the same time, tween and teen brains are especially responsive to a chemical messenger called dopamine, which is involved in learning, reward and pleasure. (The outsized influence of dopamine increases the tendency to act impulsively, and to place more importance on the excitement of taking a risk than the potential consequences.) And as it turns out, one of the many things that triggers a spurt of this feel-good compound is positive social feedback— including getting likes or new followers on social media.
“If I post something and it gets a surge of followers or comments, that kind of reinforcement can really up the ante,” DeBono says.
Protective strategies So, what’s a parent to do? First of all, don’t assume your kid is too smart or responsible to fall prey to temptation. “The biggest thing as a parent is to remind yourself that the brain you live in is not quite the same as the brain your teenager lives in,” says Ann Douglas, author of several parenting books.
That means you may want to open a discussion with your kids about the latest internet dare. Since being judgmental will discourage them from confiding in you, “say, I saw this story in the headlines,” Douglas suggests. “Have you heard about that going on in your school? What do you think about that?” Giving your kids the message they can talk to you about anything without getting into trouble, and honouring that promise also helps keep the lines of communication open.
It can also be useful to share a story about a similar situation you were in while growing up—like that time at a party when your friends were egging each other on to jump off the garage roof into the pool. “That’s less threatening, because it’s an historical example,” Douglas says, “and they can see that you remember the emotion of the tug-of-war between doing the sensible thing and the thing that your best friend wanted you to do.”
And it’s important to keep having these discussions about peer pressure, Douglas says. “My kids got to the point where they would roll their eyes—but over the years, they’d often ask questions about risky things their peers were doing that they weren’t sure about.”