Issue 18 / 23 May 2011

RISK-TAKING behaviour in young people is hardly news. Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that such behaviour, especially in young men, can be a high-stakes mating strategy.

The man who slays dragons and rescues princesses may risk dying an untimely death, but he also stands a chance of reaping the romantic rewards of his enterprise and spreading his seed far and wide.

Which brings us to planking.

If you haven’t heard of this online craze, it involves people posting photographs of themselves lying face down like a plank in unexpected places.

On Facebook and other social media sites, you’ll find photos of prone figures on machinery, across the backs of two camels or on a pool table. Some of the pictures are seriously funny and there’s an appealing irreverence to it all — the idea that you can just lie face down anywhere that takes your fancy.

So how does lying on your stomach connect to adolescent risk taking?

Last week, a 20-year-old Brisbane man fell to his death during a planking attempt on the balcony rail of his seventh-floor apartment and, within days, three young people were charged after a reported planking incident on the roof of a moving car in Toowoomba.

The spotlight soon turned to the role social media sites can play in encouraging these kinds of destructive adolescent behaviours — not for the first time.

Canadian researchers, for example, had earlier documented videos of the “choking game” posted by adolescents on YouTube. The game involves obstructing normal blood flow to the brain to achieve a brief euphoric state caused by cerebral hypoxia. Although the practice had been around for decades, the establishment of YouTube in 2005 allowed millions of young people to watch videos of it, potentially spreading and normalising the behaviour, the researchers said.

Adolescent risk taking is hardly an invention of the internet, but social media sites do seem to raise the stakes, encouraging young people to push the boundaries further than they might have in the pre-cyber age.

Young men who once vied with half a dozen mates to see who could behave most outrageously can now find themselves in a global competition against thousands, even millions, of other daredevils.

And, as the Canadian researchers pointed out, parents and doctors often have no idea what young people are being exposed to until something terrible happens.

This is not an argument for shutting down social media — an impossible task even if it were thought to be desirable — but it does make a case for the grown-ups to be more engaged with the cyber world inhabited by teenagers and young adults.

A psychiatrist told me last week he now takes a social media history of all his patients under 25, asking them which sites they used and what they did on them.

For any clinician dealing with adolescents, it seems having at least a passing familiarity with Facebook and other social media may become an occupational necessity.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 23 May 2011

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