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Digital teen fads — now playing on the small screen

Published on: July 24, 2010

Teens on ChatrouletteRemember when Facebook and Twitter were all the rage? Welcome to teen fads 2010, where you might encounter:

“Sexting” comes from "sex" and "texting." A sext message includes sexually explicit messages or photographs, usually sent from one mobile phone to another.

Why you might care: If your teen sends or receives a sext message that includes a nude photo, he or she might be charged with illegally distributing or possessing child pornography. Aside from the legal issues, chances are excellent that the nude photo will be circulated among your teen’s peers.

Flash mob
A large group of people, invited through some form of social media, who meet in a public place, perform an unusual act, then leave.

Why you might care: For starters, teens live on social media. While flash mobs originated as benign stunts to startle passersby, in the past two years flash mobs in the U.S. and Europe have become violent, requiring police to break them up.

Omegle and Chatroulette
Omegle is a website used to talk to random strangers online (text or video), with the tagline “Talk to Strangers!” A variation of Omegle, Chatroulette is also used to talk to strangers (read more about this and other online dangers). Unlike Omegle, a camera is required — you can’t enter the site unless your camera is on.

Why you might care: There is a camera involved and these new social media sites (Omegle launched in March 2009, Chatroulette in October 2009) are completely anonymous. Neither site requires registration or login. So, there is no way to track whom your teen might have talked to — or shared personal information with. In fact, on its home page, Omegle states, “Chats are completely anonymous, although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like.”

Helping teens bring the stupid — and share it with the world. Witness body spray flamethrowing, the practice of marrying aerosol sprays to fire in order to set oneself or one’s friends aflame. The aerosol of choice is usually a body spray or deodorant.

Why you might care: Possibly, there is nothing more concerning than the premeditated immolation of humans. Yet a plethora of DIY YouTube tutorials are just a Google search away. So, not only are kids engaging in this insane activity, they are documenting it and passing it on, like a note across a lab table in biology class.

But teens will always rebel and make foolish choices, right? Maybe sexting, body spray flamethrowing, Chatroulette and flash mobs are just the updated version of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll? As far back as the eighth century BCE, the Greek poet Hesiod is thought to have said, “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.” So, is there anything really new at the root of these fads?

It took nearly three millennia, but Hesiod’s “beyond words” is upon us. In terms of youthful recklessness, we are certainly beyond words in 2010. As ParentMap’s managing editor Kristen Russell remarked, “YouTube is a game changer.” All of the teen fads listed here have online component; they either originated or are documented online.

So it’s not just sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as usual.

The permanence of a YouTube video shifts the nature of poor teen choices. Once they’re on YouTube, dumb things kids do are permanently etched in on the Worldwide Web. Even if you remove pictures or video later, there’s no guarantee they’re really gone. YouTube is the gift that keeps on giving.

‘Good’ risks
Child psychiatrist Lynn Ponton, author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do, is also worried about a different aspect of teens’ online activity. She’s concerned about the lack of in-person social interaction when kids use social media and YouTube. In that respect, she says, “It was better when everyone was hanging out smoking weed in the park, because there was a social component that’s missing now.”

Ponton believes that a certain amount of risky behavior is good, largely because we humans are wired for it. “By pushing limits, we find out who we really are,” she says. Psychologist and teen development specialist Dr. Laura Kastner agrees that taking risks is an integral part of individuation, a critical piece of adolescent development.

But those risks needn’t be crazy. Both Ponton and Kastner say parents should encourage their children to take healthy risks, like involvement in sports or a performing art from an early age. Both believe healthy risks can harness the energy that might otherwise result in poor choices. Kastner says parents should be resolute about directing kids’ energy, but not be too specific about what kids choose to do. She suggests parents require “one athletic activity and one extracurricular activity” of the child’s choice.

Although we’re wired for taking risks, the human brain isn’t wired to assess the outcome of risks until around age 25. And, sadly, even engaging kids in taking healthy risks is no silver bullet to preventing poor choices.

So, what’s a parent to do? Kastner says most teens “blow it” from time to time, and a parent’s job is to mete out discipline — and then work with the teen as an advocate, saying something like, “Yes, you made a big mistake, so now let’s team up and figure out what happened and how you can make a different decision next time.” It’s a parent’s job to teach kids to make responsible choices, Kastner says, by learning from mistakes and reviewing the consequences of a poor choice.

There’s also a little good news. Just as the Internet spreads fads quickly, it might exaggerate our impressions of how often kids do engage in these new fads. Lilly, a teen blogger on, recently wrote an open letter to parents debunking three myths, including “All teens are sexting.”

Lilly is looking for a little respect: “When teenagers see the newspaper article or feature on the evening news about an abusive parent, predatory teacher or violent coach, we don’t assume that the adults in our lives will act in similar ways. The next time teenagers make headlines, give the young adults in your life the same benefit of the doubt.”

Drs. Kastner and Ponton encourage engagement with teens and healthy risk taking. Lilly asks us to believe in her peers. Taken together, these actions seem like a decent approach to this issue of parenting.

Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet and Hedgebrook alumna who writes frequently for ParentMap. She lives in Ballard with her husband and newly minted teen daughter.

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