Has your child been nominated? Not for class president or team captain. The new way to nominate is to post something outrageous online and then “tag” friends who are expected to top the performance. Some of these so-called “nek nominations” are silly, harmless fun, but many involve alcohol, drugs or sex. And kids who don’t want to participate may find that they are teased or even bullied.
Peer pressure is nothing new, of course, but new research indicates that social media can exacerbate the problem, making young people more likely to engage in risky behaviors in the hope of winning attention and approval from other teens. One study, by researchers in Belgium, confirmed that peer pressure often plays a role in sexting. Even kids who know it isn’t a good idea to exchange explicit photos may get involved because the short-term boost in popularity seems more important to adolescents than the long term damage to reputation and self-esteem. Decisions about drugs and alcohol are also heavily influenced by what happens in online friendship networks according to research done recently at the University of Southern California.
Even parents who have Facebook accounts aren’t likely to see much of what goes on in social media, partly because teens are migrating to other sites such as Vine, Snapchat, Instagram and What’s App. Rather than trying to monitor everything a child does on and offline, parents need to be proactive, equipping teens with information and skills that will help them set appropriate boundaries and live up to their own ideals regardless of what their friends do. Here are some suggestions:
Assume your child is under pressure. In its annual survey of substance use, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that 45% of teens have seen social media pictures showing other teens getting drunk, passed out or using drugs. Teens don’t necessarily talk about these photos because they don’t want to get friends in trouble, but the images have an influence. The same report found that 47% of teens who had seen such photos were convinced the participants were having a terrific time.
Talk often about values. Be sure your child has a clear sense of your expectations. Just as important, talk about the reasons behind the rules you make. “Because I said so” may be adequate for younger children, but your teenager deserves a deeper explanation of what kind of life you hope he or she will lead and why you think drinking, drug use and casual sex might interfere with his or her prospects.
Clarify consequences. Researchers now know that the part of the brain that is able to anticipate long-term consequences doesn’t develop until late in adolescence. Social media reinforces short-term thinking with photos that show the fun of partying without the aftermath which can be unpleasant and even tragic. Parents have to compensate by making the dark side of teen sex and substance abuse equally vivid. Be sure your child understands that there can be lifelong consequences from driving drunk, being arrested while under the influence, distributing pornography and having unprotected or underage sex.
Rehearse refusal. Teens are often convinced that, if they don’t do what a friend wants, they’ll lose the friendship. They will be better prepared to resist pressure if they have thought ahead about things they might say or post when they want to turn down a request. Humor helps. So does changing the subject or suggesting an alternative activity. Remind your child that true friends don’t push each other into situations that are uncomfortable much less dangerous.
Be willing to argue. Even when you start with the best of intentions, conversations with teenagers are likely to become confrontational. That’s OK. Researchers at the University of Virginia found that kids who had the confidence to stand up to their parents and argue their point of view were also more likely to resist peer pressure. Even when it seems that your child isn’t listening, keep calm and stay focused on the issue of the moment rather than getting distracted by attitude.
Use the tools to take control. Facebooks’s untag feature is a highly effective way to eliminate posts from people who are pressuring a teen to do something stupid or dangerous. (Go to the activity log by clicking the downward arrow at the top of any FB page. Click Photos and select the problem photo. Select “Remove Tags”. ) Even better, encourage your child to activate the ability to "Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline." (Click on the gear icon in the upper-right corner and then choose “Settings.” Select Timeline and Tagging and choose “Review posts.”)
Harness peer pressure for good. After analyzing over a billion status updates on Facebook, a research team from the University of California, San Diego, found that positive posts inspired positive responses. Encourage your kids to engage in good deeds and random acts of kindness. Then they can nominate friends to top those accomplishments.
The power of social media often seems overwhelming but parents have power too. Talking frankly about the kinds of online pressures kids may encounter gives them the opportunity to think ahead so that, when the time comes, they are better equipped to made decisions in the moment that they won’t regret in the future.