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While the Mountains Crumble … We Keep Filming

When you see your teen with a smartphone in hand, you might instantly think of all the many ways that device can serve them … while also annoying you. Yes, it helps them stay in touch in case of emergencies, but ugh, what a pain that little screen is at dinner time. Yep, it’s a fabulous GPS safety tool, but ugh, it connects them to so much destructive internet garbage.

What you might not quickly think about is how those smartphones are subtly changing your teen’s thought processes.

All right, the phone itself isn’t changing them, per se. Smartphones aren’t sentient creatures with malevolent thoughts. (Not yet anyway.) But those devices are connected to social media, and there are lots of different thoughts expressed there. And that world of social media longs to be fed. A lot. Teens (and adults) with smartphones are being, essentially, programmed to do whatever is necessary to feed that beast.

For instance, we’re seeing a new phenomenon lately where people are making rather odd choices in the face of hazardous situations. They’re not running from danger or seeking help, they’re recording videos.

Just recently a holed-up gunman engaged in a shootout with police in Charlotte, North Carolina. While officers were in a neighbor’s yard shooting at the house across the street, that particular neighbor stepped out from his garage and started videoing the whole thing—bullets zipping just a few feet away from him. By the end of the terrible ordeal, five people—including four officers and the gunman—were dead. The fella with the smartphone? He got his video.

That may seem extreme, but it’s not an isolated incident. People, young and old, are taking risks to record danger—perhaps hoping for a bunch of “hits” on their social of choice. There are scores of stories featuring crowds of high school “bystanders” who record a fight while someone else is beaten. Others document someone struggling in the throes of a drug overdose or the like. In these videos, no one steps in to give aid, no one runs for help. They all just … watch. And record. The outcomes are sometimes deadly.

The question, though, is why does this sort of behavior happen?

Sometimes, standing back might make perfect sense. Some bystanders hang back and record out of fear for their own safety. We’ve heard of teens stepping in to help and being hurt for their efforts. (You can find videos of that online as well.). But in many cases—and anecdotally, the numbers seem to be growing—people seem to be clamoring for the online attention they’ll get for catching a “cool” video.

But this shift in behavior is even more complicated than fear or desire for attention. Experts point to other contributors, too. Studies have shown that teen exposure to an abundance of violent videos can result in desensitization to violence and decreases in empathy and prosocial behaviors. And in a New York Post article, Dr. Linda Charmaraman—a researcher for Massachusetts’ Wellesley College  who has studied how social media affects teen brains—suggested that the teen action (or inaction) may come down to not really knowing the right thing to do.

“Adolescent brains are still developing — things like impulse control and moral development, and sometimes, they may not even think what’s happening is real,” Charmaraman said.

Whatever the reason people have for standing, gaping, and filming rather than doing what common sense would suggest—such as hiding or seeking help—it feels like we’re walking new and problematic terrain. It’s a frontier that can only be explored because we all have a smartphone camera in our hand at every given point in the day.

So what do you do?

As always, the best solutions to things that may become problematic in a young person’s life is a combination of awareness and communication. Keep your eyes open for stories about incidents similar to the ones mentioned above. And then point them out to the teens in your life.

What would they do if they encountered a bare-knuckle beatdown at school? What should they do? Ask your teens how they feel about the need to “feed the beast” of social media. Do they post? What are the lines they would not cross? Talk about limits; about wise choices.

Generally, all of the problems and bad choices that teens encounter, and potentially make, can be worked through with a good dose of communication. Think of it as counterprogramming, if you will. At the very least a communicative mom or dad can leave teens thinking about their own standards of right and wrong; their own wise ways of staying safe.

Oh, and don’t forget to model the behavior you most desire. You’ve got a smartphone, too, don’t you know.

Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.