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It’s been on the news recently: teens are eating Tide detergent pods — despite the fact that eating them can be lethal. They film themselves doing it; it’s the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
It’s not like they don’t know it can be dangerous. Besides the fact that it’s common knowledge that detergent isn’t food, there has been a lot of media coverage about the dangers of toddlers getting into them, about how Tide pods are not just poisonous but possibly lethal.
The media coverage, actually, is part of the problem. But the real problem is the adolescent brain.
Adolescence is a crucial moment in life, the transition between childhood and adulthood. The brains of adolescents reflect that transition. They have the ability to take in a lot of information, to learn quickly, that children have — and their brains are beginning to build the connections that adults have, the connections that make different parts of the brain work together more quickly and effectively. The last part of the brain to build those connections is the frontal lobe. This is important, because the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that controls insight and judgment, the part that controls risk-taking behaviors.
Basically, teens are quick learners without a whole lot of insight or judgment, and risk-takers. As frustrating as this may be for parents, teachers, and others who have to deal with teens on a daily basis, it makes evolutionary sense.
Teens have to learn so much as they get ready to become adults. They have to learn not only academic subjects, but how to navigate life: how to hold down a job, drive, pay bills, and everything else an adult needs to do to survive. It’s a staggering amount of information, really.
They also have to take risks. Just think about it: leaving home, getting a job, falling in love… it’s a lot of scary firsts. Those risks are hard to take when you fully understand how things can go wrong, and how we are all flawed and mortal. They are much easier to take when you think you are invincible.
Unfortunately, teens don’t limit their risk-taking to leaving home or falling in love. They take dumb risks, the same kind we took as teenagers. We took them because we thought we were invincible, and because our friends were watching and egging us on. That’s another part of teen reality: what their peers think matters a lot.
That’s where the media coverage comes in — more specifically, social media. Back when I was a teen, the group of friends watching and egging me on was relatively small, and most of them were people I’d chosen to be friends with, at least some of whom had some interest in my well-being. They were also there in person, and we could talk about risks before taking them.
With social media, today’s teens have potentially millions of people watching and egging them on, mostly people they didn’t choose, who are not there in person — and who have zero interest in their well-being. It’s “I dare you” in proportions we can’t measure or imagine, played out in the latest “challenge” (there have been plenty of them) and broadcast via their ever-present phones.
That’s why the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 86 intentional exposures to laundry detergent packets in the first three weeks of 2018. And those are just the ones that got reported.
YouTube has said it will take down any reported videos, which is good, but there will undoubtedly be another challenge. We can’t make social media go away, any more than we can change the adolescent brain.
We must realize that social media has changed the world adolescents are growing up in; while it has upsides like connectedness, it also can put them at risk. We need to find ways to use the power of social media for good, like the video the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski has made telling teens not to eat Tide pods. We also need to spend more time with teens, both talking and listening. We need to help them navigate this new socially connected world; we need to help them understand where and how to draw the line, so that they stay safe.