The balance between keeping teenagers safe and allowing them the independence they need to mature into adults has long been an art form requiring tremendous skill among parents. Too much restriction can cause teens to rebel and prevents them from learning the skills they need to function as independent adults, yet too little monitoring can result in treacherous situations. The dangers and temptations that teenagers face seem to grow with each generation, and added to it is the extra complication of the ever-developing world of technology. Also, the pre-frontal cortex, the place in the brain that helps make good decisions, doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott says, “The greatest dangers posed to teens today include online-dating, associating with strangers and gangs, peer pressure and drug/alcohol use.” Specifically in the Midlands, Five Points has been a recent rising scene of crime, but unfortunately it is still among the most popular venues for going out and partying. Following the attack on Carter Strange in 2011, the Columbia City Council passed a curfew banning children 16 and younger from being in Five Points, Maxcy Gregg Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Park between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“We never wanted to get to the point of doing parenting as a government,” explains Chief Scott, “but we see it’s necessary to enact a curfew to ensure safety.” There is also a 2 a.m. bar closing rule and a specialized hospitality force of police, fire inspectors and building code officials. However, violent crime was up 22 percent as of mid-September 2012 compared to the same period in 2011, and this statistic did not include a Sept. 23 shooting and mob fights.
Teens who stay until the imposed curfew of 11 p.m. or who are of age to remain later should consider always driving there in as few cars as possible, meeting at a central house and riding together. Chief Scott recommends this choice instead of driving separately and meeting up in Five Points. They should not have the driver drop them off at the planned destination, but should all park together. Groups of girls should consider always having at least one guy in their car, and the groups should commit to staying together and not disbanding to go to different places in smaller groups.
Teens and parents alike should also be aware of the details outlined in the South Carolina underage drinking laws. Unbeknownst to many, teens riding in cars with other teens who have drugs or open containers of alcohol anywhere in the car but the luggage compartment can all be charged with minor possession equally. For the driver, it only takes a blood alcohol concentration of .02 to be charged with penalties for underage drinking and driving, which includes an automatic license suspension for at least three months. Teens also face the possibility of losing or becoming ineligible for LIFE scholarships.
“I know of several instances when children, who declined alcohol and passed the breathalyzer test, were charged equally as children under the influence, simply because of the open container law,” an anonymous parent says. “Because the sober children rode in the car with open containers, they were charged as if they had been drinking. Kids need to know this. They need to refuse to ride in the car that has possession of alcohol. Period!”
Parents also face a number of potential charges if drinking occurs in their homes. The South Carolina Supreme Court made it clear that social hosts may be legally liable for damages in the event that an inebriated underage guest injures himself or others as a result of the consumption of alcohol served by the host. The ruling in the Marcum V. Bowden case in 2007 states that any adult host is liable to the person served and to any other person for damages resulting from the host’s service of alcohol. This can mean a civil suit or criminal penalties. In one case, a parent received a prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter after several teenagers were killed in a drunk-driving accident following a party hosted by the parent. Although the parent did not supply the alcohol, the parent was aware that the teenagers were drinking alcohol at the party. These same charges can apply even if the parents are out of town if a case can be made that they should have known that drinking would ensue in their absence (if they keep alcohol in an accessible place in the home, if they are aware that drinking has happened there before, etc.).
“This happens in Columbia more frequently than you would imagine,” a parent confides. “Some parents turn a blind eye to what teens are doing out by their fire pit or in their basement. I know of instances when the police busted the party, and the parents were charged. It’s just not worth it to be liable. And it’s our responsibility to protect our teens and not try to be cool, permissive adults.”
One of the greatest threats to teens is that of driving in general. Teens are involved in about twice as many crashes as 30- to 59-year-olds, and it has been found that the judgment and skill to ensure safe driving develop only after years of practice. The challenge then is to let teens practice under conditions that will prevent them from making fatal mistakes.
In a recent study conducted by Virginia Tech, researchers found that when teens crashed, it was often because their judgment and ability to handle the vehicle were impaired by fatigue. They were indecisive and failed to recognize hazards, and these errors were compounded because the teens had not logged much practice time behind the wheel.
Furthermore, a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health found that a 16-year-old carrying one teen passenger was 39 percent more likely to have an accident resulting in personal fatality. The risk jumped to 86 percent with two teen passengers, and with three or more teens, the risk of death nearly doubled.
Driving at night also significantly increases the risk for teen drivers. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that nighttime accidents involving 16-year-olds fell by more than 40 percent in North Carolina when the state imposed stricter night driving rules for teens.
However, the newest of the common risks posed to teens behind the wheel is the temptation to handle their phones, especially texting. Don Cantrell, Chief Information Officer over all of the technology at the S.C. Department of Education, issues a strong warning. “Studies show a similarity between the impairments caused by texting while driving and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” he says. “Teens feel in total control when it comes to using technology, because they are ‘technology natives,’ and those tools are such a part of their daily lives. They get the messages over and over about the dangers of texting while driving, but many feel that they are more astute with texting than the victims of stories they hear about. Also, in teen culture, and now growing in older adults, it is important to be a quick responder to incoming messages. It is not considered socially acceptable to keep your sender waiting for a response when they receive a text.”
Texting while driving is now illegal in Columbia, and in many states it is also illegal to use a cell phone unless it is connected to a hands-free device. The technology of today has opened up an incredible new world of social connectivity and of information, but with it have come more dangers than just that of distraction behind the wheel. A recent study found that 80 percent of teens use at least one social network, and more than 10 percent are specifically targeted by online predators via not only social networks, but mobile apps and online gaming as well.
“It’s not a matter of just protecting our children, from elementary to high school ages, from accessing inappropriate material,” Chief Cantrell says. “In addition to inappropriate websites, we should help protect and create a safe environment for youth from ever-present sexual predators, identity thieves, scam artists, cyber bullying and inappropriate behavior like ‘sexting.’”
On her new talk show, Katie Couric recently aired a feature on online predators and how they seek out unsuspecting teenagers. Included were anonymous interviews with online offenders currently serving time in prison. “You wouldn’t let your son or daughter play in the gun cabinet,” said one identified. “Why would you let him or her play on the internet without any supervision or computer software monitoring restricting what sites they can go on?”
According to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, “Children of all ages are susceptible to predators online, over the telephone and when they travel out in the community. Know who and what your kids are connecting to online and make sure you regularly monitor what they are accessing on the internet.”
One common trap that teen girls fall into is through online dating. Predators create false profiles, for example claiming to be a 17-year-old boy at a local high school and then eventually wanting to meet their victims, usually without parental knowledge. “Just don’t set up meetings with folks you don’t already know in person,” says Chief Scott to teens.
Facebook too can be a forum for stalkers or perverts. Thankfully, there are privacy settings that can prevent most strangers from accessing a given profile. It is safest to elect the option that allows only friends to view photos, contact information, videos, friends, etc. However, each posted photo can have its own setting, so the security should be checked for each individual photo a teen posts. Discoverability is also a setting that should be considered for privacy — Facebook’s default setting is that anyone can search and find anyone else via Facebook’s search tool. There are varying degrees of privacy that can be obtained so that a teen’s presence on Facebook is not visible to literally the whole world. If a profile is visible, there are also varying levels of how strangers can have access to contact that person.
The other major factor to consider in social networking is the future impact of a teen’s online image. Any information, photos or videos put up on Facebook and shared with others is viewable forever, even if you delete your account. “What teens do online today can haunt them for years down the road,” says Chief Cantrell. “Their profiles and images online today can affect consideration for college admission, joining clubs or job interviews. Colleges, companies and organizations are performing ‘Shadow Resumes’ on candidates by looking at information found online, in order to make important decisions about people. Teens need to think through the eyes of the future colleges and employers they hope to one day have. It does not matter how old the information is that they find.”
Of course, the primary solution to all of the dangers facing teenagers is strong communication within the family.
Chief of SLED Mark Keel says, “I’m not only chief of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division; I’m a father with the same concerns for the safety of my children as any other Midlands-area parent. When asked for my thoughts on keeping our teens safe, I’d say get involved in your children’s activities and do things together that you all can enjoy. Get to know your children’s friends and where they go and what they do when they’re together. Be sure your teenaged son or daughter has a cell phone so they can stay in touch with you. Set parameters such as curfew times or expected behaviors. Be willing to talk with your teenagers, but also be willing to really listen to them. This is a time of great change in their lives. The example and influence we provide as parents can have a positive and lasting effect on their lives.”
Sheriff Lott says, “Our children are under tremendous pressures, and we have to provide them with every opportunity to succeed. I have deputies available to talk to you, your family, and your church or community group about safety for children of all ages. We have personnel who can teach free classes ranging from personal safety to self defense – you let us know the time and place and topic that you wish to receive more information on and we stand ready to assist you.” Call the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for more information at (803) 576-3000, visit www.rcsd.net or send a request for safety training and information to firstname.lastname@example.org.