Why do so many teenagers go ahead with behaviours that they know are risky?
A fashionable explanation is to talk about an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and a reduced ability to consider long-term consequences in high-stakes decision making. But another powerful explanation comes from identity formation.
Erik Erikson’s famous lifespan theory argues that identity formation is the single most important developmental challenge that teenagers face. And their sense of self is made up both of individual identity and a whole host of social identities.
These social identities spring from all the groups they’re part of. Some of them are more formal, like being a student in school. Some are informal, like being part of a particular friendship group.
This means that when a teenager identifies with a group, the voices of the other people in that group can become incredibly important. Imagine a girl in a group of friends who are all (explicitly or implicitly) saying, "Sexting is normal – it’s what we do and if you don’t, you’re not one of us."
It’s not just being rejected or ridiculed by her friends that’s at stake, it is a threat to her identity – who she actually is.
Tackling risky student behaviour
So, as well as warning teenagers about the risks of certain behaviours, we need to focus on arming them with techniques to negotiate the groups they identify with.
1. Create a tribal classroom
Adrian Bethune’s excellent book Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom talks eloquently about the power of the social group in shaping positive behaviour.
The point being that if we want to be an influential voice in our students’ lives, we have to create a sense that the classes we teach are coherent groups of which we are a part.
Tribal classrooms are characterised by trust and cooperation, where everyone feels valued. They create a sense of belonging, where all children feel like they have a part to play in the success of the group.
Achieving this often means having the confidence to stray off-topic in order to share real-life experiences or simply to allow time for fun and games. Without elements of this, we risk having all our well-planned and efficiently executed lessons falling on deaf ears.
2. Encourage students to join more groups
The more social identities a student can draw on, the less likely that any single identity can wield power over them.
If their sense of self is made up of not just a single friendship group but also from identifying with their family, a gaming community, an activist group, etc, then no single group is going to be able to dominate them.
In the current times, much of this has to be achieved online, but a recent study from the University of Oxford offers hope.
Challenging received wisdom, it found a relationship between online gaming and wellbeing, perhaps because, increasingly, there is a social element to gaming as you compete with others online.
3. Scripts and triggers
Sometimes, if a young person is being pressured to do something they’re uncomfortable with, the difference between going along with it or not can be as simple as having the right words to say.
Encourage students to have some lines ready, so they can be more confident in asserting themselves. Lines such as: "You really think I’m going to do that?"
It can be good to talk to students about how they can spot and avoid "trigger" situations that are going to get them into trouble.
For example, not turning up to the party that they know will go wrong, or at least ensuring that they have a way of getting home, if necessary, without having to rely on friends.
4. Think of celery
There was a Twitter thread some time ago, started by a police officer who had just spent several hours with two girls who had sent nude images of themselves to boys at their school.
The boys had promptly sent the pictures to all their friends, and the girls were devastated.
Given that the girls had attended lessons at school where they were warned about the dangers of sending nude images, the officer was at a loss as to how to stop it happening again.
There was a reply that proved very popular from someone who had been speaking with her niece about what to do if she was pressured into something she was uncomfortable with.
This person had asked her niece what food she didn’t like. The answer was "celery" – her niece hated celery. So, she asked her niece: "If everyone around you was eating celery and telling you you’re really missing out, would you start eating celery?
The question was easily and firmly answered in the negative. So, she then said to her niece: "Every time you’re in an uncomfortable situation …think of celery."
Aidan Harvey-Craig is a psychology teacher and student counsellor at an international school in Malawi. His book, 18 Wellbeing Hacks for Students: using psychology’s secrets to survive and thrive, is out now. He tweets @psychologyhack