Teens Who Text and Drive: The Staggering Stats and the Myth and Habit Behind Them

Posted on October 5th, 2012, 0 Comments

Last week I heard a mother talk about teens who text and drive. There were tears in her voice as she told why she cared so much about this issue. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Alex, was killed in a rollover accident on her way to school. Alex was texting while driving. (You can learn more about this family’s story here.)

The staggering stats:

• Texting while driving causes 25% of all accidents, totaling 1.6 million crashes and resulting in 333,000 injuries per year.

• Texting delays a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol concentration of .16 – double the legal limit of .08. And a driver who is texting is 6 times more likely than a drunk driver to be in an accident.

• Teens admit they regularly text while driving. In a recent CDC national survey of more than 15,000 high school students, 1 in 3 said that they had texted or emailed while driving. In a just released survey by State Farm, the numbers were even higher – 57% of teens with driver’s licenses admitted to texting while driving.

• Distracted driving deaths are most common in teens. Every day, texting while driving causes 11 teen deaths.

Obviously, this isn’t just a teen issue. Many adults text while driving too, and, like teens, adults also lose focus on the road when they do. But because of their inexperience at driving, teens are already more susceptible to accidents than adults. Texting and the growing menu of similar distractions make the number of teen deaths and life-altering accidents staggering – heartbreakingly so.

We must help our teens make wiser, safer decisions. And to do this, we’re going to have to deal with both a myth and a habit.

The myth about multitasking:

Teens tend to view texting while driving as simply doing two things at once. And most of them pride themselves on their ability to multitask. But while most teens (and many adults) like to think they can multitask, cognitive research suggests that when people think they are doing two things at once, what they’re really doing is switching very rapidly from one task to another. That means the brain has to pick and choose what to ignore and what to pay attention to as it shifts back and forth.

Neuroscientists liken the process to a spotlight moving from one task to another with the transitions being neither instant nor smooth. In fact, studies have shown that texting takes a driver’s focus off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds – enough time to travel the entire length of a football field at 55 mph. Obviously, teens (and adults) who text while driving aren’t always going to get all the information they need to stay safe.

The texting habit:

Texting is a habit, and it’s a hard habit to break – especially for teens. Neuro-imaging studies indicate that the instant gratification of texting and getting a text in reply floods the brain’s pleasure center with dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter rewards teens for texting – often within seconds – sending the message, “That feels GOOD! Do it again!” and causing them to text even more. Thus, once started, it becomes harder and harder to stop.

Plus, research has shown that small messages that don’t fully satisfy – like those sent in texts – are the most addictive. What’s more, dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability. And unpredictable is exactly what texts are all about. We don’t know exactly when they’ll come or who will send them.

And then there are the Pavlovian cues. These are small, specific signals that a reward is on the way – like the ringtone indicating that a text has arrived. And these cues set off the dopamine system. Thus, the ringtone adds to the addictive effect of texting and makes it virtually impossible for teens to ignore an incoming message.

Truth be told, the habit-forming quality of texting affects both teens and adults, but teens are affected more. That’s because habits are learned. And with their brains still developing, teens tend to learn faster and better than we adults do, making the breaking of the texting habit that much more difficult for them.

The next post will explore what parents can do to debunk the multitasking myth and help their teens break the habit of texting while driving.

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What You Need to Know About Goodness of Fit

Posted on January 11th, 2012, 0 Comments

Have you ever wondered why your neighbor’s kid seems to be doing better than your teen – even though you’re working as hard (if not harder) as a parent? Research examining goodness of fit provides some answers.

Children are born with genetically based differences that affect how they respond to their environment as well as their tendency and ability to regulate themselves. And it turns out that temperamentally different kids are affected differently by the same parenting.

For instance, studies have shown that, regardless of how they are parented, impulsive teens are more likely to get into trouble than their more self-regulated peers. But when parents of impulsive teens provide lots of structure, monitoring, and guidance, their teens get in significantly less trouble than they would have otherwise. Of course, teens with more self-control also benefit from good parenting, but their behavior isn’t as dependent on it, and they often thrive with less direct intervention.

My two kids are a good case in point. Each had unique abilities and needs, and raising them taught me that we parents often have to use very different strategies and degrees of involvement to get similar results. For example, as a middle schooler, my son benefitted from quite a bit of direct supervision of his study time. Together we defined a place, time, and duration for him to get his homework done, and I checked-in on him regularly. My more self-regulated daughter didn’t need this type of intervention and, in fact, would have resented it and probably rebelled.

Thus, even if you could treat each of your children in exactly the same way, chances are they’d respond to you in different ways and their experiences would not be the same. In addition, you’re likely to have one child who needs more of your attention, more of your time, and more of your help or resources. So rather than suggesting to your children that you’ll try to treat them equally, it’s wiser to assure them that you’ll strive to take their individuality into account and give each what they need.

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