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Social Media as a Causal Mechanism for Risky Behavior

About the Author: Kelly Hillen

Kelly Hillen is a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, majoring in chemical engineering. She is in the University Honors Program and is a member of the Primannum Honor Society as well as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Kelly enjoys tutoring, which she organizes independently, but also tutors through the UMD Noyce Program and online through Chegg InstaEDU. Besides her passion for science, Kelly loves working with people so she hopes to eventually transition from a career in engineering to one involving management, which she is gaining experience in as an assistant manager at Vector Marketing during the summer of 2015.

Is It More Than Just Kids Being Kids?: Social Media as a Causal Mechanism for Increased Risky Behavior in Adolescents

By Kelly Hillen | Position Paper

Much of the data available suggests that the historical trend of risky behavior in adolescents has been decreasing, but spikes in recent years have proven the contrary to be true. Despite the enactment of many precautionary driver safety laws and programs to increase teenage safety on the road, 2011 marked the first year of increasing numbers of adolescent driving fatalities after eight consecutive years of decline (Copel). The trend continued in the following year; in the first six months of 2012, there was a 19-percent increase in deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers nationwide compared to the same period in 2011 (Copel). Meanwhile, despite the many efforts that have also been made to increase safe sex awareness among adolescents, data shows that, after declining every year for nearly two decades, 16 states saw teen pregnancy rates increase five percent or more from 2005 to 2008 (North). Similarly, although schools emphasized educational programs about drug use, 16,000 overdose deaths from prescription opioids were recorded in 2013, more than four times the number of deaths that occurred from the abuse of these drugs in 1999 ("Prescription"). If the increased risk-taking by teenagers were restricted to driving, that would make analysis of causal factors and brainstorming solutions much easier; however, the similar increases in risk-taking behaviors involving sex and drugs suggest the possibility that a shared catalyst should be looked into. The data generally indicates that adolescents are participating in more high-risk activities now than in past years, which has severe implications for their safety and well-being.

For the purposes of this discussion, risky behavior is defined as involvement in potentially unsafe activities related to driving, sex, drugs, and alcohol. Much of the current research focuses on the actions parents and educators should take in dealing with adolescents' high-risk behavior but glosses over the more basic question of why the issue is worsening in the first place. I propose that social media should be looked into as a potential instigator of these worsening trends because of its comparatively recent introduction and rapidly increasing popularity among adolescents. One facet of social media, in particular, that has not been delved into with regards to its impact on destructive behaviors of teenagers is the ability of social media to quantify peer approval with concrete numbers associated with Facebook likes, Instagram favorites, and Twitter followers, and the effect that ability has on self-perception and the pursuit of acceptance. Social media's increasing entanglement in the lives of adolescents may provide the foundation for understanding, and eventually intervening in, the increased incidence of adolescent participation in risky behaviors.

In this paper, I will draw from preexisting research to suggest new connections between seemingly unrelated aspects of human behavior, ultimately demonstrating how social media's tendency to quantify popularity may increase the prevalence of risky behavior in adolescents. Neuroscience and psychology provide a foundation for the argument by explaining how adolescents experience greater reward feelings associated with peer approval and greater anxiety as a result of social rejection than other age groups. From this foundation, I will connect adolescents' motivations to seek acceptance to their tendencies to use social media as a tool to measure their popularity among peers, considering that likes, favorites, and followers provide users with numbers to compare themselves with others. I conclude that quantitatively assessing popularity drives adolescents to increasingly engage in risky behaviors in order to earn more attention from peers and collect "evidence" of peer acceptance. Research supports the conclusion that this increase in high-risk activities broadcast on social media makes those behaviors seem more common than they actually are, which worsens the problem because adolescents are more likely to participate in activities they believe to be social norms.

Substantial research already sufficiently explains why adolescents are more prone to risk-taking behavior. Scientists generally agree that adolescents' still developing brains cause them to take more risks than adults. Carl C. Bell and Dominica F. McBride specifically examine the prefrontal cortex, claiming that it is one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop and much of the decision-making process occurs in this part of the brain (565). Bell and McBride's research suggests that the prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until about age 26, so until that point, people may lack impulse control and have an impaired ability to think through the consequences of their actions (565). Laurence Steinberg expands on the neuroscience perspective by claiming that the "increase in sensation-seeking seen during adolescence" can be attributed to an "increase in the sensitivity and efficiency of the dopaminergic system, which, in theory, would make potentially rewarding stimuli experienced as more rewarding and thereby heighten reward salience" (7). Steinberg discusses an experiment in which peer acceptance was manipulated and scans of subjects' brains showed that the areas of the brain associated with reward processing through dopamine activation, such as the ventral tegmental area, extended amygdala, and ventral pallidum, were most active (5). These findings suggest that there exists an "overlap between the neural circuits that mediate social information processing and reward processing," which may "explain why so much adolescent risk-taking occurs in the context of the peer group" (Steinberg 6). It follows, then, that in order to satiate the craving for dopamine activation, adolescents may pursue peer approval by collecting concrete evidence they think represents being accepted. Social media could achieve this goal, as it is built around people demonstrating their approval through likes, favorites, and followers. The combination of adolescent impulsivity due to a still developing prefrontal cortex with the increased dopamine activation sensitivity to peer responses may make adolescents more susceptible to engaging in risky behavior in the first place, and then more compelled to post about it later to gain the gratification of positive social media responses.

Correspondingly, social rejection through social media has been shown to have devastating effects on people. A study by Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Kipling D. Williams unveiled a relationship between perceptions of social rejection and feelings of pain. The study involved scanning subjects' brains while they played a video game in which a subject and two avatars tossed a ball to one another (291). The subjects were led to believe that they were playing with other people, but the computer-generated avatars were designed to quickly stop passing the ball to the subjects (291). When this occurred, the area of the subjects' brains associated with physical pain was activated, comparable to the intensity of pain accompanying significant bodily injury (291). Many researchers believe that adolescents experience even greater emotional turmoil in response to peers' attitudes and actions towards them than the average adult would. Catherine Sebastian et al. devised a study to test the proposition put forward by earlier researchers that there is "hypersensitivity to peer acceptance and rejection in adolescents compared with younger children or adults" (138). The earlier studies found that adolescent females were more likely than other age groups to report that peer evaluations are a necessary determinant of self-worth. Adolescent girls commonly viewed rejection by peers as confirming their unworthiness as individuals, which the research found to peak between ages 15 and 16 (138). Sebastian et al. employed the same experimental procedure used by Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams, but repeated the study with three groups of female test subjects: one with a mean age of 13, one with a mean age of 15, and one with a mean age of 27 (139). The subjects' mood and anxiety levels were measured before playing the ball-toss game and after they were excluded, and Sebastian et al. found that both adolescent groups experienced more drastic decreases in mood and more elevated levels of anxiety following ostracism than adults did (139, 141). These findings support the theory that adolescents' drive for peer approval is greater than adults, which suggests they are particularly susceptible to the consequences associated with negative peer feedback on social media.

In examining research by Susan Moeller, Elisa Powers, and Jessica Roberts at the University of Maryland, I found that the combination of pleasure from social acceptance and pain as a consequence of rejection contributes to the development of anxiety. I will use the term popularity anxiety to define a psychological condition in which people experience physical and emotional symptoms resulting from their obsession with establishing popularity among peers. Moeller and her team found that of the nearly 1000 students interviewed on 12 college campuses in 10 different countries, four out of five experienced anxiety attacks after being forced to not use social networking sites for one day (Hough). A media report on the study states that many students could not even make it the full 24 hours without social media, and many others described feeling anxious, insecure, dependent, depressed, jittery, and paranoid during the time they went without it (Hough). The researchers speculate that these consequences stemmed from students' dependence on social media to provide them with self-worth (Moeller 49). This research may indicate that positive self-perception is developed through the accrual of likes, favorites, and followers, and that without this reinforcement adolescents develop symptoms of anxiety. This popularity anxiety may be attributed to a lack of "impression management," defined by Liraz Margalit as "the process through which people attempt to influence others' perception of their image by regulating and controlling information during social interaction" (Margalit). The compulsion to control and modify one's self-image through social media may cause adolescents to rely on those popularity measures as confirmation of self-worth. Commenting on the results of a study conducted by the nonprofit Anxiety UK and the University of Salford in Britain, Anxiety U.K. Chief Executive Nicky Lidbetter said that for people "predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed" (Donnelly). I would contend that popularity anxiety is intensified by social media's tendency to quantify popularity, which drives many users to compete for attention in order to achieve high numbers of likes, favorites, and followers.

Because bold and daring behavior is often rewarded on social media with attention from an awe-struck audience, adolescents may be more inclined to engage in high-risk behavior (Cookingham 3). By doing so they are able to document the experience with a description, photo, or video broadcasted through social media to impress friends, who are free to like and comment on the posts. Hanan Shteingart and Yonatan Loewenstein argue that the positive responses people receive reinforce the behavior due to "operant learning," in which an association between an action and a consequence is made to modify behavior (93). The reward of likes, favorites, followers, and other measures of social media approval, motivating adolescents to perform behaviors that lead to the accrual of those measures could explain why so many adolescents reference risky behaviors on their profiles. According to a literature review by Lisa M. Cookingham and Ginny L. Ryan, a study found that 54 percent of social media profiles have at least one reference to a high-risk behavior, which they define as those involving substance abuse, unprotected sexual activity, and violence (3). Cookingham and Ryan do not speculate as to why these behaviors garner more attention from peers, but it is reasonable to suggest that this attention stems from the tendency of these behaviors to be perceived as exciting or forbidden such that people applaud those who engage in them.

The high proportion of adolescents presenting themselves as risk-takers perpetuates the increasing trend of participation in risky activities. A study by Megan Moreno et al. found that more than half of adolescents 11 to 18 years of age reference risky behaviors related to sex, violence, alcohol, or drugs on their social media profiles (30). Moreno et al. asserts that a perceived normalization of high-risk behavior may cause adolescents to model the risky behaviors they see online (31). Cookingham and Ryan agree that social media greatly increases the frequency with which adolescents are exposed to risky behaviors, causing the behaviors to be perceived as the norm, and therefore acceptable. The researchers cite a study in which adolescent test subjects who are exposed to images of partying and drinking on social media later drank and smoked more than control subjects (3). The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University researched this issue and concluded that adolescents exposed to pictures on social media of other adolescents drinking alcohol, using drugs, or passed out are three times more likely to have consumed alcohol and four times more likely to have used marijuana (Lane et al. 3). This supports the theory that online exposure to high-risk behaviors translates into risk-taking action, which may have dangerous repercussions for those who are constantly exposed to risky behaviors through social media.

To negate the potential consequences associated with quantifying popularity through social media, many psychologists push for parental intervention. They believe the best route of action is for parents to monitor their children's social media posts to dissuade them from publishing risky content ("How to be Safe"). The thinking is that adolescents would be less likely to post about participating in high-risk behaviors due to the fear of their parents seeing the post, which would then mitigate the norming of such behaviors because of the reduction in exposure. In addition, many experts believe it is the parents' responsibility to prevent adolescents from measuring peer approval through social media. Caroline Knorr, Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media, recommends that parents intervene if their child begins to feel stressed about the number of likes or retweets on their photos or posts if they "want to raise a kid who feels she has internal self-worth" (Stewart). However, some researchers recognize that parents cannot monitor their children at all times, and even if they could, there is no guarantee that it would change adolescents' behavior. As a result, they suggest that adolescents should be educated on media literacy so that they are prepared with tools to make more responsible and informed decisions independently (Mihailidis). According to Paul Mihailidis, "media literacy" is the "ability to access, evaluate, analyze, assess, comprehend, review, critique, and produce information from a variety of media" (7). The integration of media literacy in school instruction would enable students to dissect the messages they are exposed to, spanning many more mediums than the traditional literary analysis of printed sources containing only text.

In January 2014, New Jersey became the first state to pass a law requiring students in sixth through eighth grade to take classes on appropriate and responsible use of social media (DeNisco). The intent is to highlight the permanency of social media posts and remind students that those posts are considered by college admissions officials and potential employers (Sievers). Although not the lawmakers' original intent, this action may deter students from documenting risky behavior on social networking sites and, therefore, reduce the compulsion students feel to conform to those behaviors to achieve popularity. However, this approach only focuses on one facet of social media literacy, and it is used more as a scare tactic to minimize posts about risky behavior than giving students the knowledge and tools to consciously evaluate messages conveyed through social media posts. Perhaps it would be beneficial to not only require social media instruction for all public schools nationally, but also to expand the curriculum to include discussions about framing, which is the manner in which social media information is presented. Adolescents should be made aware that the numbers of likes, favorites, and followers precipitated by activities on social media change perceptions of those activities in real life. Hopefully, adolescents will come to realize that they are predisposed to conform to certain behaviors when those behaviors receive concrete measures of popularity on social media.

If the quantification of popularity through social media does truly increase risky behavior in adolescents, doing more to increase awareness and explanations of the phenomenon through social media literacy will be a necessary step in remedying the problem. Some private organizations have begun to take steps in that direction. The nonprofit Common Sense Media, which recommends parental intervention and monitoring of adolescent social media use, also offers free digital literacy tools concerning online communication, privacy, and cyberbullying for students and educators to download (DeNisco). Another nonprofit, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, has a slightly broader goal, aiming to design school curricula that incorporate career, communication, and technology skills necessary for success in a constantly advancing environment (Framework). One of the company's specific goals is to increase media literacy, so I hope the need for social media literacy, specifically, is emphasized and that other organizations use this model to push for the augmentation of school curricula. However, it is important to note that both Common Sense Media and Partnership for 21st Century Skills make minimal mention of how social media use may influence adolescent behavior, so this aspect of social media literacy likely requires expansion.

Because discussions about social media literacy aimed towards children and/or parents are so rare, social media users themselves—the most invested stakeholders—are not aware of a possible connection between social media and risk-taking. Improved methods of teaching social media literacy would show students that social media can be an unwitting tool for quantitatively assessing popularity among peers, the craving for which is particularly strong in adolescents, and for influencing participants (especially adolescents) to engage in unnecessarily risky behaviors to attract attention and gain peer approval. The consequences of participating in and broadcasting risky activities on social media should not be dismissed as "kids just being kids" because they threaten the health and safety of those involved.

Works Cited


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