Socially Contagious Behaviors
We know, of course, that colds and flu and other illnesses are contagious. When a cold is going around, we remind our children to wash their hands, avoid touching their eyes and mouths, and keep a safe distance from other children who are sick. We may also encourage an increased intake of vitamin C, the use of antibacterial gels and other preventative measure. For the most part, we also trust that other parents will keep their sick children home to avoid the spread of illness. If there is a serious outbreak of illness, we may even keep our child home from school for a period of time. When our children become teens, we teach them about sexually communicable diseases and how to avoid these through abstinence or protection. In short, our response to contagious illnesses is to remove the sick person from contact with others, remove ourselves from contact with the sick person, and/or take specific practical measures to protect ourselves from the germs or virus that cause the illness.
But physical diseases are not the only problems that are communicable. Negative behaviors can be passed from one person to another, though these problems are socially rather than physically contagious. Some self-destructive teen behaviors, in fact, are extremely socially virulent and can spread among groups of teens as rapidly and destructively as a physically communicable disease.
Bullying can take the form of physical abuse, social isolation, harassment, and internet shaming. The harm bullying causes can be physical and/or emotional and has even been linked to teen suicides. Bullying among girls—including physical bullying—seems to be on the rise.
Dangerous games include the choking game, various games involving high-risk dares, drinking games in which participants can drink toxic amounts of alcohol, hitting games, etc. Like bullying, peer pressure and groupthink dynamics can lead young people to engage in harmful and even deadly behaviors in the name of fun. Some of these games, like the choking game, can have an addictive quality.
Promiscuity or high-risk sexual behaviors may take different forms in different regions, schools, or social circles. Once a behavior becomes normalized in a group, it can become contagious. Often myths about what constitutes “real” sex and misunderstandings about how diseases are communicated help certain behaviors proliferate. Casual oral sex among middle school students, for instance, has become epidemic in certain communities.
Binging, purging or restricting are symptoms of eating disorders that are often learned socially. These dangerous behaviors may begin as ill-advised attempts to manage weight, but can lead to addictive or compulsive habits that can be life threatening.
Chronic overeating or binging has recently been studied as a socially contagious behavior and a probable contributor to widespread obesity.
Drug and alcohol abuse can begin casually in situations that involve peer pressure or a level/frequency of exposure that normalizes the behavior.
Cutting and other forms of self-harm are often passed from teen to teen initially as a way to manage difficult emotions. This behavior can escalate to compulsive levels that are extremely difficult to manage.
It may be useful to understand that contagious behaviors are passed in much the same way as contagious illnesses—they are passed from one person to another through exposure. When we know that someone is carrying a contagious disease, we remind our family members of the risks of exposure, we give them tips regarding how to avoid infection, and—when necessary—we remove them from contact with the contagious person(s) or circumstances. If our child becomes infected, then treatment becomes necessary. Sometimes similar measures are in order if behaviors like those described above seem to be an issue in our teen’s social circles. Education and voluntary avoidance are the first steps to take, but when those strategies prove inadequate or our teen is not compliant, we may need to actually change our child’s social circumstances, removing her from the dangerous situation entirely.