As a parent, my biggest fear is the poor judgement I know each of my kids will exhibit at some point during their youth. Of course I’ll do my best to prevent any major catastrophes, but the bottom line is that there are just going to be times when my children will make a spectacular show of poor judgment. Maybe it will be the time they skip school. Or, a time when they drive too fast. Or, maybe they’ll even partake in underage drinking. My hope is that they won’t push the limit too far, they’ll get caught (safe and sound), pay fair-but-not-too-life-altering dues, and learn from their mistakes.
But what about the time if (or when!) they do something really, really, really stupid, like the girl who is making headlines today by implying a threat against American Airlines on Twitter? Her lapse of judgment spawned a series of repercussions I’m certain she did not anticipate. Sadly, it seems she has been arrested and will do penance for some time to come, if not interminably. A commenter on the Huffington Post’s Facebook post about this story says, “You can’t fix stupid.” My first reaction to the remark was, “You aren’t kidding.”
Wait a minute, though. This girl is 14 years old. Fourteen. Barely a teenager. What 14 year old could possibly fathom the dire consequences of typing 140 characters into her Twitter account and clicking a little blue box that says “Tweet”? How could a 14 year old have enough vision, foresight, and awareness of the world to comprehend the fall-out of what she was sending out into cyberspace, a relatively abstract world of information superhighways, traffic jams, and bleeding hearts?
Remember our own teenage glory days? Oh, yes. There was the time I snuck out to walk 6 miles to a pit party… And the other time my friends and I stole wine coolers from the fridge and drank until we threw up… Oh, and the other time I rode home from school with the senior despite being prohibited from getting into cars with boys. I’m sure the list goes on, yet I was still considered a “good” kid and pretty typical, actually! I remember being concerned with impressing “Mary Jo” and “Lila Mae,” and that I couldn’t be bothered with listening to my parents, much less pay attention to what else was going on around the globe. I completely missed the Cold War ending, Nelson Mandela being set free, or this other massively big deal called the Persian Gulf War. To say that I wouldn’t have grasped the potential for a prison sentence based on a blatantly flippant comment typed into a computer, is the understatement of the century. After all, I could definitely be a smart aleck when I I wanted to be. But more than anything, I was just a 14 year old girl and I just wanted to be popular.
But, that was 25 years ago when we didn’t even have computers, much less internet or cell phones. Today, with instant access to 8 billion people, direct lines of communication to corporate brands, and the power of the Apollo 13 in the form of an iPhone, kids run an exponentially higher risk of making not just poor decisions, but devastating decisions. And social media only serves to magnify kids’ natural tendency to be rebellious and make lousy judgment calls. It amplifies their mistakes to grotesque proportions, and expected teenage behavior under the lens of social media is suddenly morphed into terrorism. Labels abound and we’re quick to shred the fragile innocence of children on public forums at the slightest hint of poor judgment. This gives a whole new meaning to “it takes a village to raise a child.” I’m pretty sure this isn’t what the proverb had in mind.
Don’t get me wrong. This young girl made a mistake and she needs to learn from it. (I picture the authorities showing up to scare the wits out of her, but not actually creating a criminal record.) My point is simply that she is only 14 and it terrifies me to think of my kids making the same, stupid botched attempt at impressing their peers and how tragic it would be to have their lives ruined as a result. The thought of potentially reckless and devastating behavior in the spirit of youthful ambivalence, keeps me awake at night! It is this very inexperience and immaturity that could lead the FBI straight to our doorstep, too! Or, worse.
The NIH reports, “The the part of the brain which controls reasoning and impulses – known as the Prefrontal Cortex – is near the front of the brain and, therefore, develops last. This part of the brain does not fully mature until the age of 25.” According to a study done by Temple University, “teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.”
Factor together the teenage brain, peer pressure and social media, and it is easy to see how a 14 year old could end up in this situation – it isn’t just a matter of pure stupidity that can’t be fixed. There are steps parents can take to navigate the adolescent years of potential missteps.
- 1. Read up on social media and teen use. Not all social media use is negative and it certainly won’t help to outlaw it. Try these resources: http://www.parenting.com/gallery/social-media-monitoring-kids?page=0, http://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/social-networking-tips, http://www.kenneymyers.com/blog/parenting-in-the-social-media-age-how-to-keep-your-child-safe/, http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/news-features-and-safety-tips/pages/Talking-to-Kids-and-Teens-About-Social-Media-and-Sexting.aspx
- 2. Focus on open communication in general and spend time talking with your teen regularly. Try these resources: http://www.empoweringparents.com/five-secrets-for-communicating-with-teenagers.php, http://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-talk-with-your-teenagers-not-at-them/000528, http://understandingteenagers.com.au/blog/2010/07/5-mistakes-adults-make-communicating-with-teenagers/
- 3. Make a concerted effort to teach your children how to make good decisions – don’t just hope for the best. Try these resources: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/on-parenting/2010/10/01/3-ways-to-help-good-kids-make-tough-choices, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jim-taylor/teaching-decision-making_b_825414.html, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-achievement-practice-matt-levinson, http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/family-relationships-parenting-decision-making/53329.aspx
Now, if that wasn’t enough to worry about already, there’s that other airline story that made headlines today. I’ll let someone else dissect that bad decision.