Of Cigs And Selfies: Teens Imitate Risky Behavior Shared Online : Shots - Health News It used to be parents worried that their kids were hanging out with the wrong crowd. Now they need to worry about hanging out with the wrong crowd on Instagram. But do online influences matter?

Of Cigs And Selfies: Teens Imitate Risky Behavior Shared Online

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And now let's turn to the other end of the age spectrum. A recently study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health looks at how much teens are influenced by their peers online. As you might expect, the answer is quite a bit.

NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on what that can mean and what parents might be able to do about it.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: It's probably the most popular way teens talk to each other today - online comments and photos, which is why researchers from the University of Southern California wanted to know how much kids were influenced by those postings when it comes to risky behaviors, like smoking or drinking.

Researcher and public health specialist, Thomas Valente describes the type of photo's he's talking about.

THOMAS VALENTE: Kids partying, you know, generally two or three in a picture, raising their glasses or raising their cups or their beer cans, and then posting those pictures online and then writing things underneath it, like having a great time, you know, here at the party, and things like that.

NEIGHMOND: Valente surveyed more than 1,500 - 10th grade students in high schools in Southern California. He asked them how many friends posted photos of themselves smoking or drinking. Then, he asked the students about their own activities over the next six months.

VALENTE: For students who have friends who are partying online, they're more likely to become drinkers and smokers over time.

NEIGHMOND: About 20 percent more likely. Now Valente points out that online influence is still not nearly as great as face-to-face influence. But the difference is relative. Unlike more intimate friends, you can have hundreds, even thousands of online friends. And the comments and photo's they post are delivered in seconds.

DR. SUSAN LIPKINS: Typically, it would take awhile, long time for cultures to change.

NEIGHMOND: Susan Lipkins is in private practice in New York state. She says trends like dances, for example, can spread with near immediate speed. Now because of the Internet, we see that worldwide cultures are changing at warp speed. So that everywhere - not just the United States - kids and people are doing things and the culture - or the ability, that desire to do that and repeat and enhance it goes so quickly that we can't even keep track of it.

Add to that a teenager's need to separate from parents and other authority figures often by imitating their peers and then exaggerating.

LIPKINS: They want to equal it and make it their own by increasing the danger, or the risk, or increasing the sexualization, increasing the violence or aggression. And in a way, it's an act that shows who they are, that they can either belong to that group or be better than that group; that there's a competitive nature to it.

NEIGHMOND: A competition often exacerbated by society in general, aggressive confrontational talk shows, for example, or the winner-takes-all mentality of many reality shows.

This makes it difficult to transmit more gentle values, like empathy and compassion, says Lipkins, who adds that parents are still the most powerful influence when it comes to those values.

LIPKINS: I ask parents when I speak to them, I say, OK, so there was a car accident? What did you do? Did you stop and help? Did you call 911? Or did you just pass by and say, boy, I'm glad it wasn't me. And I think that's like, you know, a very mild example of how we teach our kids what to do.

NEIGHMOND: And boosting a child's confidence about themselves and about right and wrong is pretty much the only defense parents have against powerful online influences.

Researcher Valente says talk with your kids. Put risky behaviors that they view online into context.

VALENTE: Know that they're going online. Know who they're friends with. Then make sure you have conversations with them about what they're seeing and what they're doing, so that they properly interpret it and so that they don't come away from these experiences thinking, oh my gosh, if I don't go out partying and drinking heavily every weekend I'm not going to be popular.

NEIGHMOND: Ground your teenager, he says. Help them interpret risky behavior messages and images in a reasonable and responsible way.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.


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