When I noticed the dark brown wound on the back of my 13-year-old son’s hand, he explained that he had burnt himself with salt and ice. “I just wanted to see if it would work,” he said. “It didn’t even hurt.” When my shock turned to anger, he implicated his 11-year-old sister as an accomplice. I had apparently raised not one, but two, “gifted” children.
Why would honor students with no history of drug use or brain disorders maim themselves in the name of curiosity? They saw it on YouTube, naturally.
Hollye Grayson, M.A., MFT, works extensively with Los Angeles teens and she points out that our hyper-social society allows teens to emulate kids they would not associate with in person. These virtual peers can provide real validation.
“It’s a cool factor,” she says. “‘Look how cool that is. Look how many hits, how many people are looking at that cool thing he did.'” Even high achieving kids may crave this kind of attention. It’s different from the approval they receive from parents and teachers. “Before YouTube we didn’t have to worry about something like this. This is clearly a big problem now, with these kids copying these crazy things.”
After the salt and ice incident, I talked with my daughter and a friend who had tried similar feats, like the cinnamon challenge, she saw on YouTube. The friend told me that kids copy the videos because they are funny, and because they want to prove for themselves that the results in the video really happen. This was the reason my own children had given for the idiotic stunt. I asked if she applied the same logic to trying drugs. “Oh, no way,” she assured me. “They teach us about drugs at school. They don’t teach about this stuff.”
As if teachers don’t have enough to do.
Dawn Spragg, a licensed counselor and founder of the Teen Action & Support Center in Rogers, Arkansas, says technology enables risky behavior and the quick dissemination creates momentum for a stupid idea. “It doesn’t have time to die down or be deemed dangerous. Everyone sees or hears about it at the same time.”
Grayson says it’s pointless for parents and teachers to try to warn kids against these behaviors anyway. “Their brains don’t even process that information. They need to visually see the results.” She suggests gathering teenagers together in an auditorium, showing them a bunch of funny stunt videos that end well, get them laughing and having a great time, and then hit them with the reality — images of what happens when the jackass moves go bad.
For days I watched my children’s skin peel and wondered what other stupid things they might try with common household items, or worse. I worried about the moment when that cool kid at the party passes my child a joint, or a square of paper, or a candy-colored pill. Spragg and Grayson say there is no set age when human brains become fully developed, and they agree that high-risk behavior can continue well into the early twenties — at least. Until then we need to expect some bad decisions.
Spragg goes back to the sage advice: know your child. “Do your best to understand their environment,” she says. “Watch YouTube’s top hits, talk to kids about their favorite clips, watch what they watch without comment.” She encourages listening in for clues. Kids talk about things with their friends when they think you aren’t paying attention.
As for my own intellectual giants, I half hope the ice salt burns leave nasty scars, visual cues that might prompt them to think again before relying on the first impulse of their undeveloped brains.