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Why YouTube makes parenting teens even harder

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  June 7, 2012 06:36 AM

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Have you heard of the California Knockout? I hadn't when I was asked by our local Fox TV station to talk about it, so I did what we all do these days when we want to find out about something: I Googled it. I found out that it's a variation on the Choking Game: you hyperventilate, then someone pushes on your chest which stops blood flow to the brain. You get a quick high, and then you pass out. Yet another one of the outrageously stupid and dangerous things that teenagers do--and apparently a bunch of middle schoolers in Northbridge have been doing it, prompting the principal to send out an email warning parents.

Among the links on Google were links to Youtube--and I was floored. There was video after video of kids doing this. If anybody has even the slightest question about how to do it effectively, a quick check of YouTube will answer it for you. Of course, the videos don't mention that it can cause seizures or brain damage, or that kids can hit their heads or otherwise get hurt when they pass out and fall down.

Now, it's sadly normal for teenagers to do outrageously stupid and dangerous things. It's consistent with where they are in brain development, at that crossroads between being children--fast learners and fearless--and being adults, with a bit more common sense. The last part of their brains to mature is the frontal lobe, where common sense and reason live. Another thing we know about teens is that not only are they risk takers, but they are deeply influenced by their peers.If their friends are doing something, they are more likely to do it--especially if they think it's going to make them seem cool, or brave. 

What YouTube does is multiply that peer effect. The videos (which were really disturbing but at the same time fascinating) made doing this outrageously stupid thing look really cool. The kids doing it, and the ones urging them on, seemed really brave and reckless in that way we all want to be when we are teens. The message of the videos was that you were a wimp (or whatever the proper word is these days) if you weren't willing to try doing this (outrageously stupid thing).
I'm not sure that parents fully get this. We're so used to thinking of "peers" as the people our kids hang out with. They are the people we think about when we think about who influences our kids. But with the internet, and especially sites like YouTube, "peers" becomes the whole wide world. Anybody with a video camera can influence our kids.
I'm not saying we should keep our kids off YouTube. There's lots of great stuff there. It would be nice if YouTube could do a better job of policing, but I don't know that that's realistic (one of the videos had a warning that it might not be appropriate for some viewers, but I was able to click right through that). But we do need to do some extra talking to our kids. We need to talk with them about what they do and see on the Internet. We need to have more conversations about making good decisions (like: doing things that stop the blood flow to your brain is not smart). We need to be more involved.
As if parenting teens wasn't already hard enough. Sheesh.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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