The NekNominate phenomenon brings together four drivers of the culture of young people:
- The propensity to explore drinking limits. This is not a new phenomenon: young people have played drinking games since the invention of alcohol.
- The desire to take risks. Research by Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore of University College, London, demonstrates that risk-taking is a key feature of the adolescent brain. She has found that the limbic system of young people aged 16 to 24 is hypersensitive and rewards risk-taking. 'They are particularly prone to taking risks when they are with their friends.' (See Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's TED Talk: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain). The fact is that young people are wired to take risks. This goes a long-way to explain the Gap-year bungee-jump phenomenon.
- The need to be loved/ respected by one's peers is a well-documented driver of many aspects of human society. Family, employment, philanthropy in its many forms and, more recently, celebrity have provided these for generations. Today, the Internet provides the ability to achieve "fifteen minutes of fame" and to engage instantly no only with friends and family but with an audience that twenty years ago was only available to TV celebrities and leading politicians.
- The ability to publish information about oneself to the Internet. There is a tendency among many people 'to live out their lives' on Facebook. Social Media provide instant feedback and reaffirmation - friends can comment and 'like'; 'hits' and 'retweets' are counted, all fueling the need to be loved and respected. The problem with this is that young people have little concept that publishing to the Internet is like having a digital tattoo: it is very difficult to get rid of what you have written once it is published.
The combination of these factors mean that young people are competing for each other's attention on a world stage and the threshold for notoriety and 'respect' are consequently higher. As the rewards go up, so do the stakes and the consequence is that the entry level for the respect of one's peers is for NekNominees to risk their own lives.
So what can we do as parents and educators?
Well we can't really stop it or ban it. The phenomenon is out there and young people will always find ways around any parental controls that we put in place.
Here are four antidotes to the NekNominate phenomenon.
- Ensure that young people not only are educated about safe drinking limits, but also that they know what to do if they or one of their friends go too far.
- Channel the risk-taking. Given that young people are wired to take risks, it makes sense to provide young people opportunities to take risks in controlled environments. Outdoor education has a huge part to play in this - rock climbing, skiing, expeditions take young people out of their comfort zones and can fulfil the need to take risks, but within the bounds of overall safety.
- Provide 'real-world' opportunities to demonstrate love and respect for young people. Parents and schools need to celebrate the positive contributions that young people make. Most importantly young people need to feel loved by their parents (and this is often best achieved by setting consistent boundaries for them).
- Ensure that young people not only are Internet-aware, but that they have people to talk to when times get tough. Extended family and a school's counselling service can play a very important role in this.