risk taking online

Why kids take risks online: and how you can help

Whenever our kids share things, engage with others or hang out in online spaces, they are opening themselves up to risk and the real chance that things could go wrong. And of course there are risks in everything we do everyday. When looking at online safety, we are often highlighting those potential risks in order to help parents manage those factors and ensure their child’s safety is paramount. The very public nature of the online world also means that when things go wrong they can potentially be witnessed by many and certainly an audience that they didn’t intend. So aside from damage to their physical wellbeing, we can also experience damage to our reputation. And certainly the boundaries we put in place, the teaching, guiding and supporting we do as parents, can all go a long way to mitigating those risks, and can help to keep our kids safe.

But what about the risk taking behaviours that young people willingly take part in themselves and even seek out?

Safety concerns & online risk taking

Everyday we see examples whereby safety seems somewhat of an afterthought as people seek out the perfect instagram pose, leaning precariously off the edge of a mountain or hanging from a skyscraper. Anything to get noticed.  Then there are the more ‘accessible’ risks, whereby young people take up the latest craze or ‘challenge’ doing the rounds of social media feeds. And these ‘challenges’, by their very nature, are obviously going to be encouraging greater risk, with emphasis on the unknown outcomes that can in some cases be unhealthy, dangerous and even life threatening. Some such challenges that have done the been around previously include things like:

  • The Cinnamon Challenge whereby one swallows a teaspoon of cinnamon, whilst somebody films and uploading the results. Definitely not one to try due to the extreme danger of cinnamon getting in to the lungs with possible fatal consequences. Similarly the chilli challenge had scores of young people taking chilli’s to school and filming their friends as their eyes watered and they gasped for water.
  • The Tide Pod challenge: whereby you swallow a tide pod (a washing detergent tablet), film the resulting repercussions and upload for laughs (if you’re not taken to the hospital with chemical poisoning and respiratory failure). 
  • And the latest “skull breaking” challenge which has been seen on Tik Tok whereby two people stand either side of someone else. The outside two both jump in the air and the unsuspecting middle person has their legs kicked out from under them and usually falls flat on their face, backside or head. You can read more about this one in this article 

Now these are just a few examples of the many more that are out there, with no doubt many more to follow.

Risk taking that damages our reputation

Aside from those risks that can leave us with physical harm, there are those risks that can cause damage to our reputation and our digital footprint which may in turn result in us being overlooked for certain roles of responsibility, leadership or opportunity. Some risks may also see us investigated for breaking the law. These risks may be to do with oversharing of private information or data. It may be the sharing or sending of nude pictures. It may be filming a stunt that has us doing something illegal even if that said stunt is done in seemingly controlled circumstances (see the article on the girls filming a Tik Tok video that saw them in the front seat of a car going through a drive through McDonalds and thus alerting themselves to the authorities due to their age, their lack of seatbelts and the obvious uniform  disclosing exactly where they went to school. 

Is all risk taking bad?

We know that a certain amount of risk taking can actually be beneficial for a child’s development. To be able to evaluate the possible outcomes and their likelihood, to problem solve when things don’t go to plan, to recover and bounce back from a perceived failure, all help to build young people’s resilience and help make themselves accountable for their actions and the outcomes. There is also a positive feeling that comes from flirting with the unknown and testing out boundaries. So of course we need to help our young people walk that precarious line between healthy risk taking and that which is going to likely have a detrimental outcome. 

Why do young people take so many risks when it comes to posting and sharing online?

When we have billions of videos uploaded daily, for some it can be a way of standing out in the crowd. Mundane, safe, nothing out of the ordinary videos do not tend to go viral. So with so much noise and so many trying to get noticed, the riskier, more dangerous, more challenging, more controversial a video is deemed, the greater chance there is that others will share. There is also of course the false sense of security young people often feel when they share things online. They often forget the potential audience that may be viewing, sharing, saving or even investigating what they share. 

How can we help teens who are natural risk takers?

Certainly taking risks can be something that some people are more inclined to do than others, and teenagers it seems, with their still developing brains, are somewhat primed for these behaviours. Looking ahead to consequences and determining possible outcomes is something that is a little slower to develop in our teenagers brains and thus this can be a tricky thing to teach. That’s not to say they cannot be helped to manage their risk taking better or indeed that all teens are going to want to take risks. 

We do need to be careful that we are not just adding to the ‘noise’ of warnings and alerts to danger that young people are so often subjected to when it comes to online behaviours. 

What they don’t need to hear is comments such as “I told you so”. Or “if they jumped off a bridge would you?” . Or “why don’t you just go outside and play and stay away from social media?”. Yes we’ve all heard them before and probably said them before too. But I am not so sure they are going to be effective in helping our kids learn better ways to manage all those things we as parents are afraid of. 

So what can we do?

Talk to your kids

Yes, once again it comes back to our connection with our kids and the conversations we have with them. So it is about giving them time and space to discuss without fear of judgement, and to know they have someone there who understands the challenges they may well face. 

So talking to our kids rather than lecturing them is always going to be a better option. 

Develop Critical thinking

What we want to be teaching is the notion of taking more calculated risks. Develop in them the critical thinking to analyse a situation and decide what are the most probable outcomes. So questions you might discuss may be:

  • What are the worst case scenarios, and what is the likelihood of that scenario coming true?
  •  Who else could therefore be affected by that possible or probable consequence?
  • Is it therefore going to be worth taking that risk? 
  • Or should you rethink your approach to this or make some changes to alleviate the risk?

Look for teachable moments

Use what has already taken place to help them with this way of thinking. Look at the risks and challenges we have already seen, look at the ways they or others have got in to trouble with their online antics. We can bring up scenarios we have seen in the media and talk about them in a way that seeks out discussion rather than judgement. 

When things go wrong we can ask them questions such as:

“At what point do you think that person thought that was dangerous, unwise, unhealthy, disrespectful?” 

“Would they have had any warnings?”

“How would you handle a similar situation?

“What could they do differently next time?”

“What other ways can you stand out in the crowd or get a similar result without putting yourself or others in harm’s way?

“How can you think more creatively about this, to ensure an outcome that is different?”

Remember our kids will likely make mistakes online. Most of us probably have or may at some time. But we don’t want those mistakes to be catastrophic life changing ones, but rather ones we can learn from and recover from. By talking, connecting and accepting the world they are facing, we have a lot better chance of helping our kids do just that. 

Share this post

Like this article? Sign up to our email newsletter and never miss a post.