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Cyber Savvy:
Supporting Safe and
Responsible Internet Use

Why Teens
Make Unsafe Choices Online

Why is it that teens make unsafe or irresponsible choices online? Of course, we know that all teens from time to time make unsafe or irresponsible choices in the real world. This column will explore some of the factors that are implicated in online decision making, which includes those factors that influence real-world decision making -- and a cyber-twist.


Teens brains are a work in progress. During the second decade of life, the frontal lobe is undergoing significant growth and development. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain that allows reasoned decision making. As part of that development, teens also are determining for themselves the values and standards that will guide their decisions.



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Brain researchers have discovered that when adults process emotions, they generally do so in the frontal lobe. When teens process emotions, they do so in the region of the brain that controls the fight or flight response -- the amygdala. So, if emotions are involved -- which for some teens might be often -- teens are less likely to engage in good reasoning about the situation. They do not think -- they feel and act.

The concept work in progress is important. Just as a toddler must practice walking to learn to walk, teens must practice decision-making to learn to make good decisions. Unfortunately, just as a toddler does not understand the concept of stairs and moving cars, teens also do not yet understand many aspects of life.

People learn to make good choices by paying attention to the consequences of their actions. Here is the cyber-twist: It is much harder to figure out the consequences of online actions. The reason for that will be explored in the next two factors.


Teens perceive that they are invisible online, or that they can take steps to be anonymous. That reduces concerns of detection leading to disapproval or punishment. The impact of invisibility on human behavior is not a new consideration. Plato told the story of the Ring of Gyges, in which a shepherd found a ring that, when turned, would make him invisible -- thus raising the question of how people might behave if no one can see them.


Teens do not receive tangible feedback about the consequences of online activities. The lack of tangible feedback interferes with the recognition that actions have caused harm, and with empathy. Empathy is the foundation for remorse that one has caused harmed to another. The lack of tangible feedback also interferes with a recognition that actions have caused harm to self. Thus, the teen who posts highly damaging material online is likely not sensitive to the impact of such material on his or her reputation.


The major life task for teens is establishing their personal identity, values, and relationships with others. For many teens, their social networking activities have become an important vehicle for such exploration. The number of friendship links and amount of communication activity is a measure of social worth. Teens vary in their level of social anxiety. Those who are more socially anxious might post outrageous material to attract attention and can become highly preoccupied with the amount of electronic communication.

Part of personal identity is sexual identity. Many teens are using social networking to explore who they are as sexual beings. That can lead to posting sexual material that could attract predators, foster involvement in risky sexual activities, and damage their reputations. Teen exploration of sexual identity is occurring in an online environment that many people, especially young adults, are using to arrange for sexual hook-ups.


Teens sometimes forget that real-life values and rules should control the choices they make online, and that just because they can do something, doesnt make it right. A strong online social norm is you have a free-speech right to post anything you want -- regardless of the harm it might cause another. Many teens think that because it is possible to download copyrighted music without paying for it, it must be okay.


Other teens, and adults, are making bad choices online. That provides significant social support for unsafe or irresponsible actions.


Teens who face temporary or continuing challenges -- including personal mental health issues, difficulties in school, and/or challenges in relationships with family or friends -- are at high risk online. They are not likely to pay attention to obvious risks or make good choices. They are highly vulnerable to manipulation by dangerous individuals or groups because they are seeking attention.

Essentially, risky online behavior must be viewed from the perspective of adolescent risk. It is necessary to apply insight from research in other areas of adolescent risk to an analysis of online risk. It is helpful to think about teen online behavior across a range of risk -- savvy teens, naive teens, vulnerable teens, and at-risk teens. Savvy teens are generally older teens from stable homes with attentive parents. Naive teens are generally younger, with less experience, and might have more naive or less involved parents. But with effective education, naive teens can become savvy teens. Vulnerable teens are those who are less stable and are going through a period of teen angst. At-risk teens are those who face significant ongoing challenges.

The higher the degree of risk, the more likely it is that teens will make unsafe or irresponsible choices, will fail to pay attention to -- or see merit in -- education about Internet risks and concerns, and the less likely it is that they will be willing or able to rely on their parents for assistance. To address the concerns presented by vulnerable and at-risk young people online, it is essential to ensure that responsible adults who have a relationship with these young people -- teachers, counselors, doctors -- are attentive to the potential that they are at risk online. It also is essential to strongly focus on effective bystander strategies that take advantage of the fact that savvy teens are in the best position to witness possible concerns. Savvy teens can be encouraged to provide assistance to their peers or report online concerns to an adult.


Dangerous individuals and groups, as well as commercial sites, use sophisticated techniques to influence and manipulate online users. Those techniques include:

  • Offering or providing gifts, which creates a feeling of indebtedness and inclination to comply with a request that might not be safe or responsible.
  • Seeking or encouraging commitment to an individual, a group, or even a commercial product. That leads to an inclination to behave in a way that is consistent with the commitment.
  • Creating special relationships built on social praise, affiliation with like-minded others, attractiveness and familiarity.
  • Establishing authority and thus encouraging behavior in compliance with the dictates of such authority.
  • Encouraging an action by threatening a loss if such action is not taken.


Supporting teens in making good choices online starts by emphasizing important values and standards. Those values and standards are grounded in family values, spiritual values, school rules, terms of use agreements for sites and services, and even civil and criminal law standards. There is a not-so-amazing commonality in all of those values and standards.

It is exceptionally important to use teachable moments -- learning opportunities that arise -- to discuss issues and problem-solving strategies related to safe and responsible online use. News stories can provide excellent opportunities to discuss those issues because the news stories focus on how actions result in consequences. Talking with teens about incidents that have happened -- who did what, what decisions were made, what happened, what other decisions could have been made, and how might those decisions impacted the outcome -- provides a vehicle for them to practice decision-making.

To help guide their online decision-making, we also can teach teens to ask themselves such questions as:

  • Is this kind and respectful to others?
  • How would I feel if someone did or said the same thing to me or to my best friend?
  • What would my mom, dad, or other trusted adult think or do?
  • Would I violate any agreements, rules, or laws?
  • How would I feel if my actions were reported on the front page of a newspaper?
  • What would happen if everybody did this?
  • Would it be okay if I did this in real life?
  • How would this reflect on me?

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Updated 05/10/2011