During the first three weeks of 2018, poison control centers across the country reported 86 intentional exposures to single-use laundry detergent packets by teenagers. The “Tide Pod Challenge,” which spurred young people to post videos of themselves eating the toxic pods, had gone viral. 

Though not always national news, risky and sometimes deadly social media challenges continue to make the rounds of popular platforms like Instagram and TikTok. In April, a 12-year-old boy in Colorado died after nearly three weeks of being on life support after participating in the “Blackout Challenge,” which dares people to choke themselves until they’re unconscious. In September, a Vermont high school reported minor damage resulting from the “Devious Licks Challenge,” which encourages students to steal or vandalize school property. For parents, it can be hard to fathom why their smart, savvy offspring might fall for a foolish trend that puts them in harm’s way. Brain imaging research sheds some light. “Teenage brains are wired much differently than ours,” says Jeremiah Dickerson, a child psychiatrist at the UVM Children’s Hospital. “They are attention- and reward-seeking, and they’re impulsive by nature.” 

During adolescence and early adulthood, important parts of the brain are maturing at different rates. The amygdala, which sits deep in the brain and plays a role in aggressive, instinctual and risk-taking behavior, appears to be fully active early on. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the eyes and is believed to play an important role in the ability to plan ahead and see the consequences of one’s behavior, doesn’t operate fully until about age 24. 

“It’s a developmental mismatch that social media capitalizes upon,” Dr. Dickerson says. “It can be really socially rewarding for teens to participate in these challenges, or at least attempt to, and then they get to earn bragging rights at the same time.” Brain studies have also shown that boys are more prone to risk-taking than girls.

Make Peace with the Medium

So how can parents help mitigate the risks for their teens? “Don’t demonize the medium,” advises Dr. Dickerson.

Dr. Dickerson works with young people who spend a lot of time on social media. While he has seen firsthand its detrimental effects – from risky behavior to low self-esteem, poor sleep habits and reduced physical activity – he has also gained insights into its benefits. 

“For some teens, social media has been life-saving because it provides them with the opportunity to find support and connect with people who care about their struggles when they aren’t able to get that at home or in their real-life social circles,” he says. 

Social media is simply a fact of life for most teens: It keeps them feeling connected to one another, current events and pop culture. So it’s best to start talking to your kids as soon as they start interacting with social media about what they’re seeing, what fads are popping up and what they like and don’t like. Dr. Dickerson says to “avoid saying ‘This is really, really bad. You need to not do this,’ because kids are just going to rebel and that’s not going to be helpful.” 

Keep Conversations Easy and Open

To keep your kids talking with you about their social media use, try these tips:

  • Talk during day-to-day activities. Saying, “Let’s sit down for the next 30 minutes and discuss your Instagram posts,” will probably rub your kid the wrong way. Often, the best talks happen when you’re together working in the kitchen, riding in the car or walking the dog and can bring up the subject more casually. 
  • Ask what they’re seeing, not what they’re doing. Rather than focus solely on your child and possibly put them on the defensive, asking about their peers can help them feel less guarded. Say: “Hey, I read about these challenges online. Have you seen these on your feed? Has this been something that you’ve been interested in? Have your friends been thinking about trying it?”
  • Be non-judgmental. This sets the stage for you to act as the critical-thinking part of their brain. You can agree that this summer’s Milk Crate Challenge, which prompted people to stack milk crates in a pyramid form and climb it, could be fun. Then add, “But have you thought about the downside? You could fall and get hurt.” (In fact TikTok officially banned the challenge after reports of orthopedic injuries). “Kids hate to hear that from their parents,” acknowledges Dr. Dickerson. “But part of our job is to help them think critically and rationally about their actions.”

Make Time to Unplug

When teens don’t get enough sleep – they need as much as 10 hours per night – they become irritable, perform poorly at school and can even suffer physical effects such as obesity. Start putting limits around cell phone use as soon as you allow your children to have a phone, and consider banning phones from the bedroom at night. “Parents also have to model what they’re telling teenagers to do because you really want to set the stage for your kids to be successful,” says Dr. Dickerson, the father of 9-year-old twins.

Accept What You Can’t Control

As a parent, you’re not going to be able to monitor 100% of your teen’s activity on social media. “We all have to come to terms with our own anxieties about our kids and teenagers growing up and taking risks, because that’s what their brain is wired to do as an adolescent,” Dr. Dickerson says. “It’s really hard, but we have to allow our kiddos some freedom, and be prepared to talk to them about their mistakes without blaming or shaming. Because, remember: social media is designed to take advantage of the teen brain.”

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