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Getting Down to Risky Business: Response to Recent Survey Findings Regarding Teens Divulging Risky Business Online

Posted: 01/12/09 10:29 PM ET

Now that some time has passed and the dust has settled against the backdrop of recently released survey statistics from the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute regarding adolescents and their discussing risky behavior on social networking site, let's get to the real core issues.

As you may have read in some of the initial coverage of the findings, a little more than half (approximately 54 percent) of adolescents who use the social networking website MySpace often discuss sexual behavior, substance abuse, or violence on the site. While interesting, is this information really surprising? Is it really new? We are talking about teenagers and we've all been there. Not trying to condone bad behaviors, but isn't "discussing risky behavior" as a teen a part of growing up? The real story here is what we do with this "new" information.

The light being shed on this area provides an opportunity for us to educate teens not only about the sensitive information that's posted online, but we also have the opportunity to understand what topics they're discussing and eliminate potential misinformation from being repurposed to the masses. Just like the urban myths about waking up in a tub of ice with a missing kidney, we have the opportunity to do some "myth busting" of our own and help teens get the correct information on everything from eating disorders to drugs to sexual behaviors that they need to further aid in their ongoing development.

Speaking of their ongoing development, let's not forget that we are all shaped by our experiences. It's those things that we experience when we're young that become a part of the foundation of the identity formation process. Adolescence is a big part of when people develop a sense of themselves, figure out who they are and what they like or don't like. Experimenting with sex or drugs, while on one hand could be viewed as a "risky behavior," can also be a process by which an adolescent gets to know herself better.

Let's also not overlook the role of that the ongoing development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents. It's really tough for teens as the part of the brain that acts as "Captain" and bridges impulse and action is also the last part of the brain to develop. Sometimes referred to as "the area of sober second thought," the prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain continues to mature until somewhere between the ages of 22 and 25, eventually enabling them to reason better, develop more control over their impulses and make better judgments based on their assessments of the consequences. It's almost as if teens are hard wired to have less impulse control as that lends itself to experience. How much do we learn if we don't try to climb the tree in the first place?

Again, so what do the results of the recent study actually tell us? That we need to do a better job of engaging with adolescents and making sure that they have access to the right information regarding online behaviors and health information when they need it most. Just like "Dr. Meg" was able to suggest something that the teens in the study didn't think too much about, that anyone could see and use their information, we have a chance to point out by suggestion some of the ramifications of behavior that might not have been part of the teens' decision making process. If 42 percent of the users profiled changed their profiles to be more private after hearing "Dr. Meg's" suggestion, doesn't that evidence lend itself to a review of how we impart information in a way that is useful and usable by adolescents? If we aim towards the preachy or the "just say no" method we risk losing teens' attention. This is our chance to get educated on why teens take risks and information in an informative and suggestive way, reducing the shaming/blaming/criticizing game that often doesn't work to help anyone, let alone teens, contemplate and eventually modify behavior.

Finally, we're all focusing right now on the behavior of teens, but what if the same information was reported about adults. That 42 percent of us engage in risk behaviors such as substance use, sex and violence. What? Drugs and sex and violence aren't risks if you're an adult? Maybe the final result from this study is also an opportunity for adults to investigate our own behaviors as well. If, as adults, we aren't changing our behaviors, with our nice, tidy, developed pre-frontal cortexes, then how can we expect teens to do it?