Last week I touched on the shocking number of deaths that occur in this country due to prescription drug abuse and a concern about how readily available prescription drugs are to teens and young adults. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused substances by Americans age 14 and older (following marijuana and alcohol). As if that wasn't a disturbing enough thought, studies also show that teenage risk-taking tends to heat up during the summer months.
With such alarming statistics about the dangers that lurk out there for today's young people, it's easy for a parent to feel overwhelmed. But despite what we hear about "kids of today" spinning out of control, the facts tell us something quite different. On the whole, teenagers today are much better behaved than the previous generation. So says a report published last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compared to adolescents in 1991, today's teenagers are less likely to carry weapons, smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, and more likely to wear a seatbelt than the generation that preceded them.
Studies also show that adolescents who have open lines of communication with their parents — who describe them as available and understanding — are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior than others. As noted by psychologist Lisa Damour, director of Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls, adults who establish and uphold rules tend to raise adolescents who are less likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol as well.
Contrary to popular belief, studies show that adolescents feel as vulnerable to the risks that are out there in the world as we adults do. So, why do they take so many chances? The answer shouldn't surprise us. The wish to impress one's peers, as with generations past, can overpower a young person's better judgment. Yet as Lisa Damour reminds us, while peers have long influenced teenage behavior, parents should never forget that parents continue to do so as well.
As adults, we are also reminded — seemingly daily — that a parent cannot absolutely guarantee the safety of a child. And, in today's world, where broadcasts of violence are so pervasive and far too commonplace, it's nearly impossible to shield young children, let alone teens, from seeing such things.
A recent study by the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, reviewed and summarized more than a dozen studies and meta-analyses about the effects of virtual violence and aggression on children's attitudes and behaviors. Not to be confused with "virtual" reality applications, they defined virtual violence as forms of violence experienced or witnessed virtually on a screen.
During a time of so much conflict in the news, the authors of the study recommend parents take steps to reassure their children that there are still mostly good people in the world. They further stressed the importance of parents showing children stories of people helping each other, and not hurting each other, as a means of reassurance.
"We know from hundreds of studies on thousands of children that there is a link between 'virtual violence' and real-world aggression," claims Dr. Dimitri Christakis, lead author of the study. "On average, the effect is in what we would deem [in] the small to moderate range." He equates this exposure to be equivalent to second-hand smoke exposure and lung cancer, a connection strong enough to prompt many municipalities to enact non-smoking ordinances.
Christakis points out that there are benefits when children consume nonviolent media. A study he led in 2013 found that pro-social and educational screen time — including television and video games — can help to significantly enhance social and emotional competence in children.
As noted by Pamela Druckerman in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, children also need to understand what's going on around them. Even in tough times, parents should tell them the truth — often in simple terms — and help them process it. It's far worse if kids sense that something's wrong, but no one talks to them about it. A strategy she proposed was that parents consider telling the story of something similar that happened during your own childhood, and then describe how you overcame it.
We should also not forget that striking terror into teenagers with dire warnings about their safety — in today's world — may be both unnecessary and even counterproductive. There is research that suggests that teenagers may act rashly, in part, because of an exaggerated feeling that they're not going to live a long life anyway.
Many professionals believe that today's constant exposure to violence may be desensitizing many of us. For others, the constant stream of news on social media can be traumatic. As reported at a British psychology conference last year by researchers from the University of Bradford in England, exposure to violent imagery on social media can cause symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder; in other words — a persistent emotional reaction to a traumatic event that severely impairs one's life.
Anne Marie Albano, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, believes that when a violent attack occurs, it can be a good idea to limit your exposure to social media.
"This will help you balance a realistic and credible threat with information that is sensationalized," Dr. Albano said, "or a rush to report something or talk about something that doesn't have the impact that you would think it has."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has even issued a guide to help people deal with acts of terrorism. The recommendations include encouraging people to close their eyes and to take deep breaths to feel calmer, or to take a walk or talk to a close friend. It also recommends other basic self-care practices to reduce stress such as avoiding alcohol and drugs, exercising regularly and eating healthy foods.
Dr. Albano said that a primary worry in the field of psychology is people "going out of their way to be so safe that it shrinks their world." She added that this is exactly the kind of outcome terrorists seek — they want to see the population change their practices and live in fear.
Going out of your way to avoid interacting with strangers or refusing to take mass transit following an event, for example, can also stoke fear and anxiety in your children. Listening to our children and answering their questions may be hard. Trying to live our normal life may, at such times, be hard. But we have to try.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.