I read an interesting article in the New York Times today. Teenagers, Friends and Bad Decisions
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/teenagers-friends-and-bad-decisions/. I love when articles confirm what I already know, but in a new way. It makes me feel so smart. This referenced a study that was done at Temple University looking at the effect on teens brains while they are making decisions when they are alone versus when they are with their friends. The experiment was so interesting. Ask a bunch of 14-18 year olds to do a simulated driving game for which they will be rewarded with cash if they finish in a certain time frame. Embedded in the game are choices to be made like running yellow lights to finish more quickly. However if you "crash" you get penalized and delayed. Scores were compared with a group of college students and a group of young adults. "Half of the time each person played alone, and half the time they were told that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching in the next room." The results, no change in game playing or risk-taking for college students and young adults when told about people watching their play, but for the teens they ran 40% more yellow lights and had 60% more crashes when they "believed" their friends were watching. Remember these "phantom friends" were not even in the room with them, they only believed that friends were watching.
This is pretty powerful documentation of the effect of what we call "the imaginary audience", a term coined by Psychologist David Elkind that refers to the heightened sense of self-consciousness in teens. This occurs because of the newly developing and growing teenage brain that is working on overtime to make teens aware that not only do they have thoughts about themselves but that other people have thoughts about them. Think of this as opening night jitters that starts the second teens awaken and ends when they have posted their last facebook message of the day. What will I wear today, how will people see me? What will I say today, what will people think about what I am saying? and so on. The study supports the thinking that when your teen is on their own they are more likely to make responsible decisions (no imaginary audience) but give them a real or perceived audience and lets get on with the show! Because often times it is all for show, just like the teens in the study who took more risks when they thought their friends were watching.
This would be a great article to read with your teen. Here is scientific documentation of all your worries. Let them know that you are not crazy, even the scientists can see that when you are with your friends you are more likely to put yourself in risky and potentially unsafe situations. Your job here is to use that power of understanding with your teen " I get how important it is to not embarrass yourself in front of your friends, but I know that sometimes you might make a different decision when you are alone than when you are hanging with your friends. Lets try to find some ways that you can both save face in front of your friends, but make sure that you are safe. This is the kind of conversation you might have every weekend just before your teen leaves the house. This is NOT something you can change about your teen. It is literally chemistry, but you can make your teen aware of it and provide them with strategies, scripts and alternatives to keep them safe.