What happens when teens catch their own bad behavior on video?
The answer is simple: they share it.
On YouTube, on Facebook, on Snapchat, or by sending video files via text, instant/direct message, or email to their friends. Who then share it with their friends. Who, in turn, share it with their friends. And on and on. Before anyone realizes what’s happening, it’s possible the original video is out there being watched by tens, hundreds, or thousands of other teenagers.
In short, the video goes viral. Lots of videos go viral. Videos of cute kittens, lovable puppies, and other feel-good, wholesome, harmless clips go viral every day. But unfortunately, dangerous videos also go viral at equal or greater rates.
Including the videos teenagers make of themselves engaging in in risky, dangerous, or just plain bad behavior.
What Makes a Video Go Viral?
Reason # 1: Emotional Response
According to an article in Psychology Today, the primary reason a video or meme goes viral is the emotional response it elicits in the viewer. The more powerful the emotion, the more likely it is the video will go viral. The emotion can be joy, anger, revulsion, or disgust. Videos that are hilarious get shared only slightly more than videos that are scary or gross. Researchers conclude that, regardless of the origin of the video, emotion is the prime reason people share videos online.
You may have clicked on videos which, after watching, make you think, “Well, that was sick. Why are so many people watching this? Yuck.”
Believe it or not, the experts use a phrase related to sickness when explaining why videos go viral: they call it emotional contagion, defined in the Psychology Today article as:
“…a process through which emotions spread like a disease and are therefore considered contagious. It can be effective because psychological contagion, a social influence process, conveys to people that the socially appropriate response is to engage in the same actions as that of the people — either physically or virtually — around them.”
Before we go on, let’s remind ourselves that the word viral is also related to sickness and pathology. That doesn’t mean all viral videos and memes are like an illness. Rather, it just means viral the perfect way to describe how they spread: like a virus. The fact that it’s now accepted as the de rigueur way to describe wildly popular online material further reinforces the idea that emotional contagion – another phrase with its origin in the biology of illness – is the root of why we share the content we share.
Reason #2: Social Validation
The second most powerful factor that causes someone to share a video is social validation. In the study “What makes a video go viral? An analysis of emotional contagion and Internet memes” published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers define social validation – in the context of online sharing – in this way:
“Besides emotional content, one factor that may contribute to the proliferation of Internet memes is social validation. Social validation is the tendency for individuals to look to others to see what othersare doing to determine if a behavior is normative and appropriate. In environments where the correct course of action is ambiguous, people rely even more heavily on the cues provided byothers. People are also more likely to follow the cues of others when the others are a member of their in-group and thus more similar to them.”
Parents of teenagers – or any adult who remembers being a teenager – know that teenagers look to their peers for confirmation on what’s cool and what’s not. Some teens don’t make a move unless a critical mass of other teens make the same move first.
Now that we’re up to speed on why people share videos and what makes those videos go viral, it’s easy to understand why teenagers share videos of themselves other teens engaging in dangerous and risky behavior:
- They do it because the videos are funny, scary, or both.
- They do it because other teenagers are doing it.
So, once a teenager shares a video of bad behavior, what happens next?
Consequences of Sharing Videos of Bad Behavior
The answer is easy to predict: other teenagers try out the behavior they see on the video. In some cases, this is completely harmless. Think of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that went around like wildfire last year. It was harmless, innocuous fun.
But what happens when the behavior captured and shared is more than simple teenage mischief?
What happens when the behavior is dangerous?
Lots of teenagers try it out anyway – sometimes because it’s dangerous.
In the best-case scenario, nothing bad happens. Teenagers try out a risky behavior with plenty of potential danger, and – like Bugs Bunny crossing a busy highway, oblivious, chomping a carrot and making wisecracks – they escape unscathed. Probably filled with adrenaline, excitement, and, unfortunately, eager to share their video documentation online.
“I survived,” the thinking goes, “so why not share it with my friends?”
In the worst-case scenario, people get hurt, and – this is not an exaggeration – they can die.
Consider the following examples. These are all potentially dangerous things teenagers do, ostensibly for fun, then post videos online for their peers to watch.
The Choking Game (TCG).
Defined by the Centers for Disease Control as “strangulation inflicted by oneself or another to achieve a brief period of euphoria due to a lack of oxygen to the brain,” this game is clearly dangerous. Between the years 1995-2007, the CDC attributes 82 deaths to TCG. In a study on TCG published in 2016, limited to analysis of YouTube videos only, researchers found 419 TCG-related videos, with a total of over 22 million views. The parent-run website GASP (Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play) identifies 317 TCG deaths since the CDC stopped recording data on the phenomenon in 2008.
The Cinnamon Challenge.
This game seems harmless: take a teaspoon of cinnamon and try to swallow it within one minute without drinking any water. No big deal, right? This report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports “dozens of calls to poison centers, emergency department visits, and even hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs.” The AAP article indicates that as of 2012, over 51,000 YouTube clips showed people taking the challenge – even one video posted by the Governor of Illinois.
Salt and Ice Challenge.
This game involves putting salt on your skin and holding an ice cube on top of it. YouTube videos show teenagers performing the challenge, obviously in pain. And for good reason: the presence of salt reduces the temperature on the skin to 1 degree Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius), which burns the skin exactly the same way frostbite does. In the words of pediatrician Brian Wagers, “…it turns the skin to leather. You lose the blood vessels that are in there. You lose sensation, because of the [damaged] nerve endings…you’ll never have hair if you do it on your arms. You’ll have a bald patch.”
This dangerous behavior involves teenagers standing – surfing, as the call it – on top of cars as they speed down the road. Statistics on car surfing deaths are not comprehensive, but those that to exist are cause for legitimate concern: a 2008 CDC report documented 58 car surfing deaths between 1998-2008, and a Washington Post story from documented seven car surfing deaths that year during 2016.
What Can Parents Do?
Parents know they can’t micromanage every moment of their teenagers’ lives. They also know teenagers will do things they never know about. Some of these things may be harmless, and some may be dangerous, like the behaviors listed above. That list is not comprehensive, by the way – not by a longshot. We picked things that are squarely in the public eye. Meaning that if you search any of those phrases online, you’re likely to get millions of hits leading to thousands of videos and hundreds of news stories. The types of things we left out are videos you find by searching phrases like “Teens Drinking” and “Teens Smoking” and “Teens Doing Drugs.” The videos you find by searching those phrases, though, are not the ones parents need to be most concerned about.
What parents need to think about are videos shared between teens on private YouTube channels, through texts or instant messages, or on apps like Instagram or Snapchat. It’s common knowledge that teens will video themselves drinking, doing drugs, and even engaging in sexual acts, then share those videos among friends. Those videos then find their way around the school, the neighborhood, and the extended, virtual friend network. The more alarming and controversial the video is, the more likely it will be shared, and therefore, the more likely it is to reach more people.
Which makes the bad behavior on the video more likely to be emulated by some teen, somewhere, at some time in the future.
The Answer is Two-Fold
First, parents would be wise to take a proactive role in the media their teenagers consume. Ideally, this starts long before the teenage years. Parents who watch the shows their kids watch and listen to the music their kids listen to are in the perfect position: from an early age, they can start separating facts from fiction and identify behaviors that are responsible and appropriate from those that are irresponsible, unwise, and dangerous. This falls under the category of giving your children the tools to make good decisions. It lays the foundation for the way their kids watch media: they watch with a critical eye, and when they see their friends, or friends of friends, or some random teenager in France doing something clearly unwise, they have experience identifying rational, safe behavior from irrational, dangerous behavior – which will make them less likely to try the dangerous behaviors themselves.
Second, parents would be wise to monitor their teens’ phone and computer use closely. Check the shared media on their phones for red flag videos and pictures and scour their computer browsing history for the same things. As a parent, if you see anything alarming, have a talk with your teenager about it. If you discover a video of teenagers smoking marijuana at a party, talk to them about it. If you find a video of teenagers car surfing, make sure your teen knows it can kill them. It may look like a blast, but in reality, it’s an example of exactly what not to do.
A Final Note
Although both suggestions – taking a proactive role in teen media consumption and monitoring phone and computer use – are time consuming, tedious, and may lead to uncomfortable conversations, the time and effort are well worth it. In the end, that time and effort might be far more than you being a protective parent – it might be you saving your teenager’s life.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.