Virtual Choices with Real Consequences

Understanding why teens post inappropriate content online.

Posted May 27, 2018

Carsten Moeller Thomsen/Deposit Photos
Source: Carsten Moeller Thomsen/Deposit Photos

Teens spend more than a third of their day looking at a screen. In fact, according to reports the average teen spends about nine hours a day online creating an opportunity to make a poor decision that may have an irreversible consequence. I was recently asked why youth post and do things online that may later come back to haunt them? A good question --- especially in an era where teens are losing scholarships, being let go from their jobs and getting denied admission to colleges, all because of their online behavior.

It’s not uncommon for colleges to rescind admission offers to students who post inappropriate content, images, etc., online. Just last year Harvard rescinded 10 admission offers to prospective students who shared obscene memes on a private Facebook group chat, only it wasn’t so “private”. And once university officials viewed the content, they decided those students should pursue their education elsewhere.

Sergey Nivens/Deposit Photos
Source: Sergey Nivens/Deposit Photos

Why are teens risking future opportunities by posting inappropriate online content?

In my experience, there are two primary reasons that lead to young people posting inappropriate material. The first is the erroneous ever-popular beliefs that “I won’t get caught” or “What happened to that person would never happen to me.” Teens like to believe they are untouchable and bad things won’t happen to them. Unfortunately, some young people must learn the hard way that bad things can happen to anyone.

The second reason is that a lot of young people act on a whim without thinking through the consequences of their behavior. They get so caught up in the moment they impulsively share that photo or fire off that inappropriate post. If they never get caught, they keep doing it without thinking about the effect the material may have on their lives and the lives of others.

The online community is not a forgiving one. Let’s face it, when things are posted online, it’s next to impossible to get rid of them. This includes text messages that can end up in the wrong hands only to be shared via social media. If you need an example of poor decisions gone viral, turn on the news. Our politicians and government officials have given us plenty of examples of posting and texting information that later came back to bite them. Which brings up another good question, how on earth are we supposed to teach our youth how to behave online when many adults do not lead by example?

What are the researchers saying about teen online behavior?

Some of the research that I have seen examines adolescent brain development, with a particular focus on the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for problem-solving, impulse control, and decision making. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. Although we expect our teens to know better, the fact is there are some physiological reasons they act out impulsively and believe they are invincible.

Stuart Miles/Deposit Photos
Source: Stuart Miles/Deposit Photos

What will it take for teens to make better online choices?

If we are going to try to make an impact on teen online behavior, then we are going to have to put our energy and resources into a lot of education and positive modeling from adults. Of course, despite all of our efforts, there will be some youth who will choose to post inappropriate material and learn life lessons the hard way…

Teens need to learn how to effectively and appropriately communicate and interact online. This education needs to begin in early childhood and come from parents, schools and the community. Youth can learn to self-monitor behavior, work through complex online scenarios, and weigh out options by utilizing good decision-making skills. These skills can help young people learn to make better decisions when it comes to self-regulation and managing online behavior.

With American teens spending a large amount of time each day online, it’s time that we collectively do more to protect our youth and that begins with education. As we become more and more advanced, technology will continue to be a large part of how we entertain, educate, and communicate with one another. Our culture is dependent on technology and so are our kids. The screen creates a sense of pseudo-privacy, yet the information they post isn’t private. And one post can easily spread like wildfire destroying their online reputation. Sadly, far too many teens have had to learn this lesson the hard way. No matter how interconnected the virtual and physical worlds are teens online choices can and do have real consequences.