Awake, online and sleep-deprived – the rise of the teenage ‘vamper’

By Elizabeth Englander, Bridgewater State University

About three years ago, a teenage girl was talking with me and other students about using her cell phone late at night. She told us how she waited until her parents were asleep, then spent at least four hours every night texting with her friends. Her parents thought she was asleep in bed. “I’d sleep a few hours, then get up at 6am,” she told me. “My parents always thought I had slept through the night and was just the first one up.” The kicker? She reported doing this virtually every night.

I was sure she was an outlier – not at all typical, perhaps someone addicted to online interactions, and someone who obviously didn’t need much sleep.

This is late-night, online socializing is called “vamping” (as in vampires). Danah boyd [sic] describes “vamping” as a time when kids can socialize together, free from structure and adults’ prying eyes. That rings true. So many of the teens I study and work with are so over-scheduled that they literally have no time to hang out with each other.

Vamping the night away

I decided to study vamping to see how common it is and what it’s associated with. I did a study of 642 college freshman, focusing in particular on teens who were “frequent vampers,” and compared them with their peers who didn’t report vamping as often. Frequent vampers were those stayed up three or more nights per week. I presented my preliminary findings at the Annual Conference for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in October.

Most kids appear to vamp at one time or another. An astonishing 80% of both boys and girls admitted to being frequent vampers at least sometime during high school. They spent an average of 1-2 hours per night awake while their parents thought they were asleep. Gender differences weren’t large, and vamping didn’t appear to be related to grades, behavior in school, or to connections with teachers. But there were some differences that distinguished frequent and infrequent vampers.

First, the type of high school the teenager attended mattered. Teens who attended public and private schools had higher rates of frequent vamping, compared to teens who went to parochial schools. Suburban teens were the least likely to be frequent vampers (although 77% of them still admitted to it).

Forty-two percent of frequent vampers reported having struggled with depression, compared to about 25% of all other kids. Sixty-one percent reported being victims of bullying, compared to 42% of non-vampers. It may be that kids with social problems vamp to try to improve their social standing. Perhaps vamping itself, or the associated sleep loss, has a negative effect on social skills.

Frequent vampers also revealed more digital risk-taking. These teens were more likely to admit that they had sexted before age 18, more likely to report that they had texted or messaged someone when it would have been better to talk face-to-face, and more likely to report having used Facebook prior to age 13, its official minimum age.

Does this mean that every child who vamps has serious problems? Definitely not. Although it may be common, not all kids who vamped showed serious problems. It’s just that the likelihood of some problems was elevated above that of their peers.



Just hanging out.
Image of kids via CREATISTA/Shutterstock

Kids need sleeptime and downtime

Losing sleep is hard on adults, but it’s even harder on children. Insufficient sleep during childhood and adolescence is associated with poorer academic performance, physical difficulties (such as weight gain), emotional difficulties, trouble with social relationships, and a slew of other problems. As a parent, I have terminated lingering homework projects, late-night phone calls, digital interactions, and even book-reading to enforce a decent night’s sleep.

Parents teach their children to sleep through the night as infants, and teens may need a refresher course on how to sleep well, like keeping digital devices out of the bedroom. Ultimately, the goal is for teens to learn to control their digital device – and not the other way around.

Teens may vamp because they need some “just hanging out” time with their friends. The fact is that children and teens benefit immeasurably from downtime with their peers. It’s a time to relax, learn how to enjoy companionship, bond with friends, discuss common concerns and challenges, and practice critical social skills.

Some parents may feel guilty about letting their kids have time to hang out, instead of spending that time on boosting their academic, musical, scientific or linguistic skills. On the other hand, if they don’t have hanging out time, their need for it may be compelling them to choose between socializing and sleep. Sleep may seem like the greater need, but the need for socializing shouldn’t be discounted.

The Conversation

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Everything you wanted to know about sexting, but were afraid to ask

Stories of teens taking and sending a naked picture of themselves with their phones have been all over the news media in recent years. The outcome? Shocking, according to reports which have suggested that humiliation and sometimes even suicide can follow.

But what is the reality? Sexting is often seen as a dicey electronic version of “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours”. Many teens (and adults) engage in it. Indeed, some are suggesting that it is becoming a “normal” part of adolescent sexual development. And in general, few psychological problems (if any) are correlated with the behavior.

Here’s the bottom line: research suggests that most photos don’t end up in disasters, either socially (being passed around, teased, bullied) or criminally (being prosecuted).

Such outcomes are possible, but they aren’t highly probable. We should make kids aware of these possibilities, but we have to do that without suggesting that disaster is likely or, worse, inevitable.

Risky behavior?

Sexting is a crime when it involves sending nude pictures of anyone under 18-years-old. A study of thousands of sexting cases found that those selected for criminal prosecution in the US in 2011 involved adults asking teens for pictures, or cases of obvious coercion, threats or blackmail. The researchers pointed out that the cases that come to the attention of authorities are more likely to have aggravating circumstances.

Whether the authorities are actively choosing not to prosecute more run-of-the-mill sexting, or whether they are prosecuting teen-on-teen sexting but simply rarely seeing it, is unclear. The news media continue to cover stories such as the recent case in Oakland County, Michigan, but true to form, that case went beyond two teens exchanging photos, and involved boys collecting groups of photos for purposes unknown.

If a teen sends a nude photo to a friend, how big is the risk that it will result in serious harm? Recent research is downplaying that risk. I have found that more than three-quarters of teens who sext believe their photo went to the intended recipient and no one else. These teens might be wrong and spreading photos around might be more common; but if the sender believes it has been kept private, then they probably weren’t traumatized by a mass exposure.

When I studied the after effects of sexting, I found that most incidents didn’t have much of an outcome at all – either good or bad. Most kids didn’t describe trauma or bullying, but neither did they describe newly-acquired boyfriends or increased popularity. The most common outcome was generally “feeling worse”, but even that happened in only about one-quarter of the cases.


Not all sexting is about fun and games. Image via www.shutterstock.com
Shutterstock

Curiosity and coercion

Yet there are risks to sexting that have been largely ignored. A lot of sexting is done to attract the recipient – either by an existing girlfriend or boyfriend, or by someone who wants a relationship with the recipient.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that not all sexting is about fun and games. My biggest concern is when kids under 18 – often girls – are pressured by their peers to engage in sexting that they really don’t want to do. The younger they are when they sext, the more likely they are to report that they succumbed to pressure. And that pressure isn’t rare.

Overall, about two-thirds of the teens in my research studies report that they were pressured or coerced into sexting at least some of the time. Being pressured into sexting sometimes happened within a dating relationship, or it might come from a person (usually a boy) with whom a girl wants to have a relationship. Wanting to attract that boy, and wanting to be attractive to a boyfriend or girlfriend, were the most common reasons for actually sending the photo. About 92% of the teens who were not pressured reported no problems following sexting; but that number dropped to only 68% of the teens who felt pressured into sexting.

Is it time for sexting ed?

Hannah Rosin’s recent article in The Atlantic told the story of a town in Virginia that discovered an Instagram page featuring a compilation of nude pictures of local girls.

Officials also found – to their astonishment – that sexting appeared to be widespread and common, and that issues such as widespread exposure and criminal liability were far from the minds of the teens involved. Any parent might ask, why haven’t students been taught about the criminal nature of underage sexting? Why haven’t students been warned about how devastating it could be to have a nude photo become public?

The problem, in my experience, isn’t that adults don’t issue these warnings. The problem is that kids don’t hear them. That deafness probably results from credibility issues. Why should you trust a warning that contains inaccurate data?

Imagine that I warned you to wear your seat belt, because half of the car rides in America end up with someone going through the windshield. You might not listen to me, given that it’s obvious to anyone that half of the car rides in America don’t end up with people slamming on the brakes, much less going through the windshield.

Sexting warnings are the same. If our information isn’t correct, if we’re issuing dire warnings about outcomes that are, in reality, pretty rare, then our message isn’t heard.

The conversations that will ring true with kids aren’t about the law or about social humiliation. These conversations should address the common risks and problems sexting poses, like being pressured to send pictures, or pressuring someone else to send pictures. Some teens may not understand that pressuring someone into sending naked pictures can be sexual harassment. There are no social rules about when it’s OK to take or post a picture without someone’s consent – but 70% of the teens I study say that there should be commonly-accepted and agreed-upon guidelines. “Sexting ed” could help us all develop such social norms.

Both sex and technology are topics that can be anxiety-ridden for parents, and it can be difficult for kids to believe there is any risk when they see so many peers sexting without consequences.

It’s important for parents to discuss risk, but also to discuss them realistically. Talking with your children about obeying the law, respecting others’ privacy, everyone’s right to keep their bodies private, and what values you have about this issue is what parenting around sexting is all about.

The Conversation

Elizabeth Englander does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Can technological solutions fix technological bullying?

Yes. Well – somewhat. Let’s begin at the beginning. Apps and programs designed to help kids report and cope with bullying and cyberbullying are beginning to litter the landscape. Some of these technological solutions alert adults to language that might be bullying or cyberbullying, while other apps make reporting much easier for their child or teen users. There are programs that control use of social networking, and apps that help children find a trusted adult. The approaches may vary, but all these programs and apps have a few things in common. Continue reading

The Top 5 Things Every Parent Should Know About Cyberbullying

From Top5.com:

“Three months ago Rebecca Ann Sedwick was found dead after jumping off a cement plant tower, an apparent suicide as a result of alleged intimidation from peers at her school through social media. Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University and the Director and Founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, has been working tirelessly on educating the country on bullying and its effects in hopes of preventing what happened to Rebecca from happening again. Her book “Bullying and Cyberbullying”, which was recently published by Harvard Education Press, does just that. Dr. Englander is here with us today to share some facts that every parent should know about cyberbullying.”

Continue reading here….

Philip Chism, Accused Murderer, Is The Teacher Now

There are reams of research on the causes of aggression and violence. We know that it’s a very complex behavior; that it can involve problems in child development; certain temperament or personality types; mental health issues; cognitive and learning dysfunctions; the society, and the social messages, that one is raised with; the people who are around you; traumas like bullying and cyberbullying; your social and emotional intelligence; the parents who raise you; and external factors, like substance or alcohol abuse. If you were to pile up every journal paper published on the causes of violence, you could probably fill a room.

Those of us who study aggressive and abusive behaviors are schooled in the identification of “risk factors,” though – not “causes” per se. Why? Because although we can demonstrate that risk factors are associated with violence, there doesn’t appear to be any solid “cause.” Continue reading

The Most Common Errors Kids (And Others) Make Online

Want to have an interesting conversation with your kids? Read aloud this column, and ask them their opinions. It’s fine if they disagree – the point is to have the conversation, and plant some seeds! Below you’ll find six of the most common reasons that kids get into trouble online – notice that none of these are “technical” issues at all. Continue reading

CNN: Don’t Blame Bus Driver (Guest Commentary)

What would you do?

Last month, on a school bus in Florida, a 64-year-old bus driver witnessed a vicious assault on a 13 year old boy. He radioed the bus dispatcher and frantically begged for assistance, as he feared the victim was being seriously injured. But he did not physically intervene. While the victim’s physical injuries may heal, the child’s psychological trauma will undoubtedly linger, including the harrowing sense that no one came to his aid.

But before we pile on the driver, let’s be clear: the most egregious wrong-doers here are the violent teens. They victimized a 13-year-old boy horribly and inexcusably, and secondarily, wronged the agonized bystanders. A violent perpetrator offends against everyone in a community. The driver’s anguish at his own inaction may be real and palpable, but should he still have done more? Obviously, he wasn’t confident enough of his own physical ability to handle several violent teenagers….SEE MORE

Is summer a break from bullying and cyberbullying?

Decades ago, a student being picked on by a classmate saw June as heralding relief. During the off-school months, targets escaped their daily tribulations.

But today, when so much bullying occurs online or outside of school, a target may know that summer doesn’t mean a true break. The school hallways may be empty, but the Internet buzzes with a newfound energy when the weather is hot. It’s certainly true that many summertime activities attempt to get children to forgo electronics – sometimes even successfully. I’ve also noticed in the field that students are becoming increasingly aware that constant connectivity is probably not healthy. Continue reading

Is Terrorism A Form Of Bullying?

As I’ve written before, the word “bullying” is broadly applied to many situations where it really isn’t relevant. But perhaps acts of terrorism are situations where it is.

This week in Boston, the issue has special meaning for us. Are terrorists, like bullies, intentionally targeting us for a campaign of cruelty from which we can’t defend ourselves? Theoretically, bullying has three characteristics: it’s intentional, repetitive, and takes advantage of a power imbalance. Like bullies, what terrorists do is certainly intentional – it’s no accident that people died, or were horribly injured, a week ago at the Boston Marathon; that’s undoubtedly exactly what these men intended. And what we’re seeing is also repetitive – terrorism would have much less impact if it was an isolated incident; it’s intended to be a Damacles Sword, hanging over us like a perpetual threat. Just like bullying. Continue reading

Responding to Psychological Bullying

It would be nice if anytime bullying happened in a school, a large, blinking sign identified it as such. Now, you may think that that’s not necessary; that “you know it when you see it” and so it’s easy to recognize bullying when it happens. Once, that may have been true. When bullying was predominantly physical, it wasn’t too hard to identify a transgression.

But today, most bullying is psychological in nature. That makes things much tougher, because psychological cruelty isn’t always bullying – not by a long shot. Continue reading