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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Teen Brains, Sexting, and Hooking Up

Come on, now. You remember those crazy things you did as a teenager and a young adult -- the stupid risks you took and the indescribable elation involved in being the proverbial "young and crazy" object of attention. Why do you look back on some of your wild early behaviors and ask yourself, "Did I really do that?"

By examining the relatively new issues of "sexting" (sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones) and "hooking up," (sexual encounters with no strings attached) you may find some answers for this question. And, incredibly, maybe you will find out that your immature brain handicapped your past young and foolish behaviors. The irony, though, is that your children have to live through these times themselves.

The Young Brain

Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia and author of the book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, says, "There's definitely the invincibility factor that young people feel. That's part of the reason why they have a high rate of car accidents and things like that, is they think, `Oh, well, that will never happen to me.'" (Fox News, "Think Your Kid Is Not 'Sexting'? Think Again," December 3 2009)

Research shows teenage brains are not quite mature enough to make good decisions with consistency. Why? By the mid-teens, the brain's reward centers, the parts involved in emotional arousal, are well-developed, making teens more vulnerable to peer pressure.

Also, quite alarming is the proof that it is not until the early 20s that the brain's frontal cortex, where reasoning connects with emotion, enabling people to weigh consequences, has finished forming. Early 20s!

Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, says, "I think that (in the teen years, this) part of the brain that is helping organization, planning and strategizing is not done being built yet ... (It's) not that the teens are stupid or incapable of (things). It's sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built..." (Frontline,, 1995)


In regard to current trends in sexting, Bogle finds that young people have a different view of sexual photos that might just wind up being posted online. They really don't consider that the photos could be accessed by potential employers or college admissions officers.

"Sometimes they think of it as a joke; they have a laugh about it," Bogle contends. "In some cases, it's seen as flirtation. They're thinking of it as something far less serious and aren't thinking of it as consequences down the road or who can get hold of this information. They're also not thinking about worst-case scenarios that parents might worry about." (Fox News, "Think Your Kid Is Not 'Sexting'? Think Again," December 3 2009)

The Associated Press and MTV campaign, "A Thin Line," aimed to stop digital abuse, used a poll to find that young adults are even more likely to have sexted; one-third of them said they had been involved in sexting, compared with about one-quarter of teenagers.

The surprising response as to why people would be involved in sexting turned out to be the following: "I just don't see it as that big of a problem, personally." That was the view of nearly half of those surveyed who have been involved in sexting. The other half said it's a serious problem — and did it anyway. Knowing there might be consequences hasn't stopped them. (Associated Press/MTV poll, Knowledge Networks, September 11-12 2009)

Here are some additional findings of the Associated Press/MTV poll (margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points) conducted by Knowledge Networks:

1.  14 percent said they suspect the pictures were shared without permission
2.  17 percent of those who received naked pictures said they passed them along to someone else, often to more than just one person.
3.  Boys were a little more likely than girls to say they received naked pictures or video of someone that had been passed around without the person's consent.
4.  Girls were a little more likely to send pictures of themselves. 
5.  Boys were more likely to say that sexting is "hot." 
6.  Most girls called it "slutty."

7.  10 percent said they had sent naked pictures of themselves on their cell phone or online.

Hooking Up

Bogle contends when young people talk about "hooking up," they're referring to a subculture with a complex set of rules and expectations. Not surprisingly, most of what they know about student "hookup" culture comes from alarmist news reports of "risky sex" and the American Pie movies, not serious scholarship. She believes the "hooking up" culture is tied to the major residence-life issues, such as alcohol use and sexual assault.

Evidently a shift from traditional dating to group partying has occurred. The research suggests that it has become common in the last 20 years for men and women to “pair off” at the end of a night of partying in order for a sexual encounter (including anything from kissing to sexual intercourse) to occur. This is especially conducive to the close proximity of men and women on a college campus. (Kathleen A. Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, 2008)

Bogle finds that women are far more likely than men to get a bad reputation for how they conduct themselves in the hookup culture. Men who are very active in the hookup culture may be called a “player”; women, on the other hand, get labeled a “slut.” She also reports that women often want relationships and most are dissatisfied with how often hooking up leads to “nothing,” i.e., no ongoing, stable relationship, yet, if they don't "hook up" they are left out of the dominate culture on campus.

So, What's a Poor Parent To Do?

Claudia Wallis, Kristina Dell, and Alice Park ("What Makes Teens Tick...," Time Magazine, May 10 2004) make some thoughtful observations. Look at this brief analysis of age and responsibility.

"In light of what has been learned, it seems almost arbitrary that our society has decided that a young American is ready to drive a car at 16, to vote and serve in the Army at 18 and to drink alcohol at 21. Jay Giedd says the best estimate for when the brain is truly mature is 25, the age at which you can rent a car. 'Avis must have some pretty sophisticated neuroscientists,' he jokes." 

Scientific evidence has led some legal scholars and child advocates to argue that minors should never be tried as adults and should be spared the death penalty. Last year, in an official statement that summarized current research on the adolescent brain, the American Bar Association urged all state legislatures to ban the death penalty for juveniles. "For social and biological reasons," it read, "teens have increased difficulty making mature decisions and understanding the consequences of their actions." ("What Makes Teens Tick...," Time Magazine, May 10 2004)

James Bjork of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism believes his work may hold valuable lessons for parents and society. "When presenting suggestions, anything parents can do to emphasize more immediate payoffs will be more effective," he says. To persuade a teen to quit drinking, for example, he suggests stressing something immediate and tangible--the danger of getting kicked off the football team, say--rather than a future on skid row."

In practicality, parents might help young people make up for what their brain still lacks by providing structure, organizing their time, guiding them through tough decisions (even when they resist) and applying those time-tested parental virtues: patience and love.

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