Do What I Don't Tell You To Not Do
There are two interesting studies about teens in the news this week.
The Wall Street Journal reports that new research claims that adolescents don't feel invulnerable or underestimate risks, as many of us have long assumed. Rather, they overrate the risks of such things as catching a sexually transmitted disease or dying—somewhere down the road—of lung cancer from smoking and actually feel more vulnerable than adults do.
This is bad news for parents and teachers who try to reduce teens' risk-taking with a rational, fact-based approach, writes Science Journal columnist Sharon Begley. Giving teens the facts about the odds of becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs or cigarettes, in other words, or about having an accident while driving under the influence, isn't necessarily effective.
To kids, "social acceptance and the allure of rebellion right now outweigh the costs later." Not only that, they also tend to listen to their emotions rather than their heads (no great revelation there), and will opt for immediate pleasure over the abstract notion of bad consequences.
What to do? According to the article:
The goal, then, is to trains kids to go with their gut, too. So Reyna and her colleagues are trying to drum positive images of healthy behaviors and negative images of risky behavior into their heads using "emotion-packed films and novels."
Begley points out that the technique is reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange"—if a bit more benign. Benign or not, it sure sounds like an unwieldy way to try to get people to do what's good for them—particularly in a culture where we're all bombarded with images that send the message that alcohol makes you sexy, sexy makes you popular, and popular makes you worthwhile. Talk about spitting into the wind.
The study is published in the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
Another new study says that television advertising from cigarette companies that encourages parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of smoking may actually increase the likelihood that teens will smoke in the future.
"Theories in developmental psychology suggest that authority messages specific to teenagers invite rejection by those who have migrated to a dominant peer group orientation” the Effect of Televised, Tobacco Company-Funded Smoking Prevention Advertising on Youth Smoking-Related Beliefs, Intentions, and Behavior claims. It was published Tuesday on the American Journal of Public Health website.
Citing the findings, the American Legacy Foundation, whose mission is "building a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit," has called for Philip Morris USA to take its "Talk, they'll listen" campaign off the air, claiming in a Halloween press release that they are "a trick on young people."
Philip Morris, which is the only tobacco company currently airing smoking-prevention ads that involve parents, refutes the study's findings, according to Brandweek magazine. It contends that its initiative for encouraging parents to discuss smoking is attaining its goals, and is in line with the findings of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that parents are the single most important influence on children's decision as to whether to smoke, drink or use drugs. (The ALF has a vested interest in the matter in that it has its own "truth®" prevention campaign to push.)
If you take these studies to their logical conclusion, it's counterproductive to give kids the facts about risky behavior because they'll just rebel against them. It has been a long time since I was a teen, but I can still relate to that sentiment. Plus, I realize how easy it is to go with what feels good over what's good for you. All week, I've been sucking down the excess Halloween candy in the foyer knowing full well that it's doing me no good.
On top of this, as I reported a few weeks ago, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has herself said that anti-drug programs that attempt to scare teens may inadvertently spur drug experimentation.
Still, I can't help but think that 1. it's better for parents to talk to kids about risky behavior than not and 2. it's better to base those discussions on facts (not scare tactics) than on fancy.
Perhaps it all comes down to helping kids internalize what they already know rather than giving them something to rebel against. I don't have the foggiest idea how to do that effectively, but I've got to believe that expecting kids to do the right thing by not telling them what not to do is too convoluted to be the answer.