Tide pod challenge: teen brains wired for risk, U of C prof says

The teenage brain hasn't changed much, but social media has changed the game for taking risks, says a University of Calgary associate professor, who studies applied child psychology.

Social media has turned healthy search for acceptable risk into unhealthy pursuit of likes

A new social media trend where teenagers dare each other to eat Tide pods has health professionals worried. (YouTube)

One of the most alarming new teenage trends is the Tide pod challenge, which features teens broadcasting themselves on social media biting into pods filled with laundry detergent. The Calgary Eyeopener  spoke to the University of Calgary's Kelly Schwartz, an associate professor in applied child psychology, to ask him what is going on with the teenage brain.

Q: What do you think of the Tide pod challenge?

A: Even as you're reading it, you have to smirk a little, and go, this is teen extreme behaviour at its lamest. Risk-taking is not new. Thousands of years and philosophers talked about this. Teens do dumb things — but the era we live in now, where dumb things done in private aren't done in private, they're broadcast and they are accessible. One of the unique [aspects] of this [Tide pod challenge] is that an audience of 10 has now become an audience of 10,000.

University of Calgary associate professor Kelly Schwartz says social media has amplified the degree of risk that teenagers engage in with pranks like the Tide pod challenge. (University of Calgary)

Q: What is going on inside the teenage brain?

A: One of the common theories that's been tested and has some truth to it is that we thought the brain stopped developing by late adolescence. We know now [that] the brain keeps developing well into the twenties,  particularly the part of the brain that is what we call executive functioning, so decision-making, self-regulation — all that sort of thing.

Along with that part of the brain that is still developing … is that the adolescent is still thinking with the oldest part of his brain, which is the emotional part, so it's thinking about, "what's the effect of this going to be? How much reaction am I going to get? What are my peers going to think about this?"

You'd still think, "OK, I shouldn't probably bite down on a piece of laundry detergent," but that part of the brain is very much what they call the sensation seeking — that's still active. They want newness. They want novelty. And when it comes to balancing a risky decision with a bad outcome with risky decision with wow — I could get some likes. I could get some reaction. That's what part of the brain takes over.

They know the right things to do. They know the right choices. Compared to adults, they performed very similarly — until they brought in one of that kid's peers and sat them next to them in that experiment. Guess what? The number of bad risks they took doubled. That peer element — and I hesitate to call it peer pressure — it's just the attraction of peers and the role friends have in giving you that bump in terms of liking you, and giving you attention and all that.

Q: Is this all amplified by social media?

A: You and I cliff jumping? We've got six or seven friends around us after telling stories and half of them don't believe we did it. Now you put this online and … within 10 seconds, these kids have realized, this is a really bad decision — but they've also got that reaction, they've got that attention, they've got that notice that they wouldn't have got had they not.

Q: What advice do you have for the parents of teenagers?

A: Risk-taking is actually good. It gives you that opportunity to do new things, to try new things, to push ourselves, to learn what our limits are. So I'm very much in favour of parents saying to their kids, push yourself, to learn what our limits are. Do stuff you're not good at. Be OK with failing. Strike out a couple times.

The more we do that, the more our kids learn what it is to try something and fail. And then when they're given this opportunity to come in and have these kind of dumb things they can do, they're more likely to make good decisions, because they've tried out that part of their brain and they can draw the connections between A, B and C.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener