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Does Social Media Encourage Violent Teen Behavior?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. We're going to do that today, but we need to let you know that today's topic is sensitive, might not be appropriate for all listeners because we are going to talk about the case of an alleged sexual assault in Steubenville, Ohio.

Authorities there have charged two high school football players with raping a 16-year-old girl at a party last August. This case has gotten tremendous attention around the country and, in fact, the world, not just for the underlying allegations, which are ugly enough, but what has brought this case to the attention of the nation and the world is how word of the alleged crime spread through social media. Tweets, a photo and video were posted online from the night in question. And all of this made us wonder how social media may or may not factor into the way teens behave.

And we wonder whether it's encouraging bad and sometimes violent behavior that might not occur otherwise. So to talk about this, we've called two of our regular contributors, Dani Tucker. She's the mother of two, a young lady and a young man. She's an office administrator and fitness instructor. Leslie Morgan Steiner is a mom of three, two boys and a girl, and the author most recently of "Crazy Love" about how she survived domestic violence in her first marriage. She also recently did a TED talk about surviving domestic violence. And with us for additional perspective, Aaron White. He is a father of two. He's co-author of the forthcoming book - it's coming out in April - it's called "What Are They Thinking?! The Straight Facts About the Risk-Taking Social Networking, Still Developing Teen Brain" and we also want to mention that he's a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, but he's not here on NIH business. He's here because of his book.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.


MARTIN: So, Dani, I'm going to start with you because I think, you know, since time immemorial, you know, sadly, young people have been doing bad things and bragging about it. But I do have to ask you, since your kids grew up in the age of social media, whether you think social media plays a role in what they do.


MARTIN: Not your kids, but kids, in general.

TUCKER: Not in what they do. They're going to do what they're going to do, anyway. I just think that social media has allowed them to put it out more to the world. You know, I mean, they've been doing it and they've been doing it amongst their friends. They've been commenting amongst their friends, but now social media gives them the opportunity to comment to everybody. And they think it's OK when it's not for a lot of the things that they do and say.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner, what about you? I know that you are the mother of a 15-year-old son and daughters who are 10 and 14, and I know that you've been thinking about the way you think that social media affects the victims.

STEINER: Yes. I don't see it necessarily as encouraging the abusers to do new and different things. Maybe they're doing stupider things because of social media, but I actually think the silver lining here is that social media can give victims a voice and a way to fight back, especially crimes where it's a real he said, she said sort of thing. Sometimes, it can give them evidence, and I see it as sometimes being very empowering to victims.

MARTIN: And so, Aaron, what about - your work on the teen brain is fascinating to me because one of the things that I - you know, I learned from your book is that, you know, the brain is developing far longer than most people thought. I mean, you know, a generation ago, we thought that the development of the brain stopped at around 10. You're saying that it's actually around the age of 24 and we often thought of adolescence as, you know, being all about the hormones. You're saying it's also about brain development, too.

What does your research suggest? I mean, I think the question is, are kids doing this because of social media or is social media just documenting what they would have done, anyway?

DR. AARON WHITE: I think that the use of social media just allows kids to document what they're doing in real time and to communicate with one another in real time in ways that we just never were able to do before as humans.

The purpose of adolescence is, more or less, to socialize and to get out of the home and to find your own path in life and the research suggests that, as scary as some of these new tools can seem to adults, by themselves, they don't seem to have any negative effect on teens, in general.

MARTIN: Because I think the question that some people have is - you know, again, it bears repeating. These are allegations. The legal process needs to go forward. We certainly sort of understand that, but I think there is some - and this is not the only incident like this where, you know, a young woman was victimized and then people felt a need, for whatever reason, to take pictures of it. I think it makes some people wonder whether - are these boys doing it in order to take the pictures? Is it about, really, the showing off, as opposed to the act itself? And I wonder what your research suggests.

WHITE: Oh. Well, there isn't any direct research on that. What we do know is that, if you look at teens who use social media, they tend to find it relaxing. It gives them a sense of connection with other people, particularly, if a team is anxious, it provides a way to communicate with other teens and not have to deal with the anxiety of interacting in a social situation. My guess is that like any other relatively new tool for communicating there are going to be people who are going to abuse it for whatever purpose they want to abuse it. But by and large, it again, it seems to be relatively benign. You know, kids aren't more likely to commit crimes because we have social media now. It doesn't seem like they're more likely to commit sexual assaults - like in this case, because of social media. But for those who would normally tell their friends about it in the hallways, this provides a way to do it in real time while the crime is still unfolding.

MARTIN: You did find though that teen boys - I'm not drawing a causal connection here because clearly, 'cause what you're telling us is that there is no evidence to suggest it. But you said that teen boys take more risks when they think another teen boy is watching. And why is that? And is that different for girls?

WHITE: Well, the reason for it seems to be this very, you know, age-old stage of development that we have called adolescence that we, you know, we need to eventually leave our homes and go find our own path and it's not going to help us much if all we want to do is stay home with our parents. And so, you know, we have these inherent biological wedges, we call them, that help, you know, separate us from our parents and get out there and explore. Teen boys do have a tendency to take risks in general more than females, but particularly when the there are other boys around.

So just as one example, a recent study showed that if you take a teenager and a child and an adult and you put them in a neuroimaging device so you can watch brain function, and you have the person perform a driving task where they have to make decisions about whether to stop at a yellow light or go, and they get more points if they go, but it's riskier and they're more likely to not finish the task.

Teenagers drive just like kids and adults until you put other teenagers in the room. And if you add a male friend, suddenly that teenager lying there in this imaging device will blow through the yellow lights to try to get to the end faster and get more points and put themselves at greater risk of failing to finish the task. And activity in the brain's reward system goes up when that other teenager is in the room. Meaning that it's not just a teen is more likely to take a chance, they get some pleasure out of it. It feels good to be risky in front of our male friends when we're teens.

MARTIN: And does the same apply to girls in the research?

WHITE: The research hasn't been done with girls yet. But there are very large differences between how males and females socialize. For instance, even looking, you know, back to social media, female will text message - about 60 percent of females say they text message their friends throughout the day just to say hi. It's about 40 percent for males. This is very different creatures in terms of how they socialize. So I think the risk-taking that females tend to engage in is a little different. It's more social risk. It's, you know, closer to the vest that the things that men do. Young males will just do things in the world that are very obvious. Whereas, females I think take - tend to take more subtle risks.

MARTIN: Dani, is that something that you noticed with your kids? I mean, I don't want to obviously violate their privacy any more than we already do.


MARTIN: But in terms of the kinds of conversation, I'm just interested in what kinds of conversations did you have with them about risk-taking, and particularly given that they did grow up in the age of social media, when they came up with these tools were just becoming widely available.

TUCKER: Oh, yeah. We have a lot of conversations about it, and then we also had a lot of me putting my foot down about it, you know, as simple as that, as a parent; you can't do it.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? You can't do what?

TUCKER: Say certain things on Facebook. You know, first of all, they're my friends. On Facebook and Twitter, you don't have an account because, you know, they're - I agree with, you know, our doctor friend said, you know, and I also added hormones. I mean they both have hormones and they're raging and they think, you know I, you know, everything and I know what I'm doing. And that's why you're the parents because you can tell them that you don't know everything, and therefore, you can't put everything on Facebook. I mean, Davon(ph) has posted things on Facebook that I have hit back and said, no, take it off. You know, and it's been embarrassing to him but I really don't care, because, you know, you've got to draw the line somewhere and if you don't they won't know.

MARTIN: So you don't give them a zone of privacy around their social media use.


MARTIN: You check it. It's an extension of yours.

TUCKER: Yes. It's an extension of mine and they must befriend, you know, my sister and, you know, their aunts and uncles and stuff. So and, because they need guidance and that's the way I want it. You know, we talked about it with mom. You know, sure it's a good place for you to express your feelings but there's certain things you should and should not say. This can affect you for the rest of your life. This could keep you from getting a job. So as a parent, you have to.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? What kinds of conversations have you been having about how to use social media with your kids?

STEINER: I'm really blunt with all three of my kids, particularly when it comes to harassing people online, bullying people online or sexting, you know, sending or receiving sexually explicit text messages. And there have been a lot of these cases in the news lately and so it's given me lots of opportunity to talk to them. But I have to say, I have not talked to my children very much at all about rape. And I'm hesitant to talk to them about the Steubenville case because - and I'm so open with my kids - but it's just so distasteful and horrible. And I, it's really made me think a lot about that we parents should be talking to our daughters and our sons more about rape because it is so common, especially among teenage girls. They're very vulnerable and I think we're doing everybody a disservice by not talking more explicitly - definitely about the social media part, but about rape in general.

MARTIN: You know, there's been a number of commentary about this, just asking the question of why would you first of all - obviously the question is, why would you engage in this conduct to begin with? But then why would you go around posting it? This is not the only incidence like this. I think it's important, to point out, as painful as it is. So the question, you know, Dr. Aaron, that some people have is, are people posting this stuff because they really don't think is wrong? Is it possible that they could really not think that it's wrong?

WHITE: Well, from what I've read about the Steubenville case, it does seem that there is this general attitude that those who weren't directly involved weren't doing anything wrong. So that, you know, if you sent out a tweet or, you know, you make a video, if you weren't directly involved in the rape itself, then you're not doing anything wrong. These are the discussions, like Leslie pointed out, that we have to have with our kids starting at a very early age. It's not something you wait until their mid teens or until after something goes wrong.

And when I look at that situation that happened there, I mean everybody's an armchair, you know, we all think we understand what happened there. But when I look at that situation, it's what I - the first thing that I see is on how many levels adults failed the kids. Everything from, you know, a party being hosted in the coach's house where there's lots of alcohol. That's where the girl drank herself unconscious. There were other houses that certainly were owned by adults and at the end of the night the girl was taken back to a boy's house, they slept in the basement, there must've been parents around there at some point. You know, and this issue with social media and what were they sending out? Wasn't anybody monitoring that?

And I think that most parents would agree that it's our job as parents to serve as a training wheels for our adolescence. You just don't let them run wild and we ought to be monitoring what they do. I don't know when it stops, but we ought to be monitoring what they do. And 16 is certainly not too old for parents to be paying close attention to where their kids are and what they're doing.

MARTIN: And Dani, that's a point that I think you made is that, you know, social media may be a new tool to do something old that people might be doing anyway, which is spreading heinous gossip and being mean, but that the end of the day it's still about supervision. I mean that's the kind of the point you made, is why is any teenagers having a party without adults being present? And so...

TUCKER: Right. And one big thing too, I just want to add to what he said because I totally agree; teenagers, adolescents, they have a tendency to be selfish, you understand? And they don't, when they hit these medias they, they're not - that's why it's important for us parents to watch. They're not thinking about who they're going to affect or how that person is going to feel. You know, it's just this is, you know, I'm in my world, this is my zone and I want to say this and I want to do this. And wow, here's Facebook, I can do it. Here's Instagram, I can show it. Here's Twitter, I can say it. And there's no consequences to them, you know, about what they're saying or what they're doing. And with no parental - parents watching, you know, then you don't have anybody to correct that.

I've had to say to my son that's very selfish what you did. That's selfish because you didn't think about the person that you did that to. All you cared about was this is your point and you wanted to make it. And that's the way they think, you know, well, hear me, I've got something to say. But that doesn't necessarily mean it needs to be said. And if the parents are watching and paying attention, then they can say that to them. And I think that's being missed here as well.

MARTIN: Leslie, is there anything that you think might change about the conversations you have about these issues as a result of these stories? Which, I mean I kind of credit your point here, which is on the one hand it's been pretty easy as adults for us to shield ourselves from some of the things that kids are experiencing because we don't have to see it, and then now that you kind of have to see it you can be in denial about the fact that however frequent or infrequent this occurs it is occurring to somebody and we need to figure out how we're going to face it. But is there anything you think might change in the way you think or talk about this with your family, both boys and girls, as a result of what we've learned here?

STEINER: Well, there's one thing that has really hit me hard, and in terms of any violence against women, whether it's rape or domestic violence or other kinds of abuse, I think we as a society tend to think of it as a women's issue. And the vast majority of rapists are male. And I think that makes it a men's issue. And one thing I would really like to see change is fathers talking to their sons more about it - and I'm talking about my own family. I pretty much guarantee you that my husband has never once talked to my son about rape, about anything about it, about witnessing it or tweeting about it or anything like that. And I think that's got to be a part of fatherhood, that conversation.

MARTIN: Aaron White, is there any final thought you'd like to leave us with?

WHITE: Well, I just want to mention that there was a considerable amount of alcohol involved in this situation, and as there often is in these cases. But there hasn't been much discussion about it from what I've seen. And I just want to point out to you that the way that the adolescent brain - male and female - is wired as they make their way toward independence, is a lot of gas and very little brakes. We're built to go. Let's find things, experience things, consume things, live. Not think about it. We'll think about it later. You know, and that helps kids get out of house and to form their own lives, independent lives.

Now, when you add alcohol to that equation, what you get is less brakes and more gas. And I have no doubt that when the decision was made to hit send on these tweets and Facebook postings that it was a lot easier to make that decision with the alcohol in the brain. It's much harder to rationally think through our decisions.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. And do come back and tell us more about your book. As I mentioned, Aaron White is a father of two. He's co-author of the forthcoming book "What Are They Thinking?!" That's a question I know a lot of us have asked - "The Straight Facts about the Risk-Taking, Social-Networking, Still-Developing Teen Brain." He co-authored this with Scott Swartzwelder. And as we said, he works for NIH. He's not here under NIH business. He's here in Washington, D.C. , along with Dani Tucker, one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable, mom of two, office administrator, a fitness instructor. And Leslie Morgan Steiner, mom of three and the author of most recently "Crazy Love." She also recently did a TED talk called "From the Ivy League to a Gun at My Head," all here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

STEINER: An honor.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.