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Social Comment

Neknominating - Why it's Here and How to End It
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 12 February 2014

A 20 year-old London man has become the latest victim of "neknomination", a dangerous trend which combines extreme drinking with social media exposure to threaten the lives of young adults and teenagers.

Isaac Richardson, who only recently moved to London, downed a deadly cocktail of vodka, beer, whisky and wine. He told friends he wanted to ‘outdo’ everyone.

Neknomination involves "necking" a quality of alcohol - that is, downing it in one go - often while filming oneself for online social media,  then nominating someone else to do the same. Therein lies its greatest threat to young adult culture - the establishment of viral chains built around extreme drinking.

The activity is promoted among teenagers and young adults as a game, but it is dangerous on two levels. I was interviewed today on neknomination by the BBC and my host reported seeing young men only recently "necking" up to two bottles of wine in one shot. If one failed, he would have to start again.

Neknomination's most obvious threat lies in the amounts of alcohol consumed, often by teenagers who are not used to its effects. This week, police in Cardiff are treating the death of a 29 year-old local man as a possible neknomination tragedy. For those who don't die on the spot, extreme drinking will nonetheless represent a mortal danger, as irreparable damage is done to internal organs and substance dependency develops.

The second danger it poses lies in the fact that nominees are often required to perform risky activities while under the influence. Recently, a young Irish man drowned after jumping into a river during a neknomination episode. His family say that he would not normally have gone near water, as it frightened him.

Young adults have always possessed an inbuilt sense of invulnerability. This is probably important to the formation of adult identity. Without at least some experimentation, the testing of one's limits, there is no personal growth or the development of independent decision-making.

Most of us look back on at least some area of behaviour in our youth and wonder how could ever have been so naive, or downright stupidity. Thankfully, most of our adventures (or misadventures), whilst not always life-enhancing, were probably not life-threatening.

Neknomination definitely is. It mixes the natural desire to experiment with a drink-and-dare culture and the potent offer of peer acceptance on a mass scale, to create a recipe for disaster.

Pub drinking games have probably been around for as long as people - and particularly men - have consumed alcohol socially. The social media aspect of neknomination adds something extra.

Social Media and Risk-Taking

Social networking offers young people the opportunity to achieve instant notoriety with their peers, both near and far. When you're still in the process of developing an independent identity, a personal narrative, that's a very attractive prospect - even if the notoriety is short lived.

Social media also provide a cultural bubble for members of the teens-and-20s Millennial generation. They allow a space in which young adults can isolate themselves, cutting out people who don't think like them or who might offer checks and balances when it comes to risky behaviour.

Social networking is a great boon in so many areas of life. Not least among its benefits is the potential for sharing ideas over large distances. Mass communication has given rise to mass collaboration, the age of "we-think". This is opening new windows of opportunity for scientific research and development, activism and political engagement. Even healthcare is affected, as people have begun to put their raw health data online and invite others, both lay people and professionals, to advise them on how to manage illness.

For the Millennial under-30 generation, social media is as part of the background music of life as TV was for baby boomers. Millennials are the world's first digital natives and have grown up with binary technologies in a truly symbiotic relationship. The technology has shaped their thinking, while their unique generational worldview and mindset have in turn shaped the development and acceptance of new technologies.

So much of our human interaction is conducted via digital media that it's becoming relatively easy to disconnect, should we choose to, from the physical world around us. As a result it can be harder to maintain a healthy sense of big-picture perspective.

Therein lies the danger of social media when it comes to extreme behaviour patterns, including those involved with neknomination. What looks harmless when seen from a distance, via a 2D smartphone screen, may not be so harmless when it's happening in 3D real life, up close and personal.

Linked to the false sense of familiarity - and therefore safety - created by social media is the growing challenge of shortened attention spans. An academic study released a few weeks ago suggests that the average human attention span during online activities is now down to just eight seconds.

A 2009 study conducted across all the universities in Ontario, Canada found that students were less well prepared for tertiary education than others had been just three years earlier. Why? Because they were less well equipped to follow a standard lecture presentation. Their attention spans were too short and they were too reliant on short-lived, screen-hopping, visual presentations.

I don't for a minute advocate that we turn back the technological clock. Who would want to? (I've written extensively elsewhere on the benefits and possibilities afforded us by the digital revolution - and conducted scores of lectures worldwide on the subject.) We might, however, benefit as a society by taking time to reflect on how much communications platforms like social media are coming to define us rather than serve us.

Technology is amoral. It is human interaction with technology, based on individual choice, which shapes the future.

For their part, young adult Millennials bring to their engagement with social media a very different value system than their parents.

For a demographic cohort that has come to see constant change as the only truly permanent and reliable aspect of life, there is a tendency to tick boxes quickly and move on. Employers often report that young adults jump ship too quickly, moving from job to job without consideration for the time and money that companies spend training them.

In the work space they also seem to ignore traditional measures of hard work. They don't equate application or commitment with the number of hours spent at the office so much as whether specific tasks have been completed. Their philosophy revolves around getting the job done as requested, with the maximum skill at their disposal, and then heading out.

For them, time is a currency that is almost as important as money. Indeed, in many ways money is important to them primarily because of the time it can buy - time to spend with friends, having fun or investing in meaningful causes.

Their shorter attention spans and, for some, a relative inability to think about unintended consequences, are product of wanting to experience as much of life as they can with the minimum expenditure of time. Their attitude is, "I want to tell a better story about myself. To do that I have to invest in as many experiences as I can, while I can."

My point is that under-30s have a fundamentally different worldview when it comes to the purpose of technology than their parents - or even those who are just 10 years older.

They're not more selfish - in many ways they're arguably more altruistic, given their early awareness of global challenges. (Reports suggest that a growing number of young adults, when nominated for a drinking challenge, are responding by giving their time to charity instead!)

However Millennials are, generally speaking, very focused on the "now". This is part of the potential danger involved with neknominating; there's little forethought as to consequences.


What Can Be Done?

So, what can be done about neknomination? Some will argue that governments hold the key to the problem.

I would argue that governments, national, regional and local can indeed do more to help educate young people, about the risks of alcohol abuse - and the dangers of assuming that everything digital is desirable.

Sometimes, people need a gentle (or even in-your-face) reminder that while something may seem familiar it is not necessarily safe. The mobile internet is ubiquitous, but it is also a wild west, filled with as many dangers as thrills.

Schools, health authorities and other civic bodies can play a role in providing this outlook. They can also provide assistance for young people who've become dependent on the internet in unhealthy ways.

However, governments and local authorities can't be seen as the entire solution.

Sometimes we expect too much of government; we look to politicos and administrators to solve every social problem. As a result, we effectively give politicos or bureaucrats too large a role in shaping our communities and our families.

Much of the answer to neknomination lies in the home. Even in today's very fast-paced, interconnected world, parents often have more power or influence than they think. The answer to neknomination lies largely in changing youthful attitudes to alcohol. That can begin at home.

Studies worldwide have shown that the first experience many young teenagers have with alcohol is in the home, with the approval or encouragement of their parents. Some parents seem to see the fact that their kids have started partaking of alcohol as a rite of passage.

This attitude of endorsement can be dangerous. Teenagers will often take accepted behaviours further than their parents might expect, in part because they feel invulnerable. Neknomination offers them the chance to do that, with the applause of peers far and wide.

Parents can also play a very proactive role in shaping attitudes to the online experience. Social media makes the sharing of ideas so much easier, but some of those ideas will be harmful.

None of us can watch over our kids every moment of the day, or constantly look over their shoulders as they engage with mobile technology. We can, however, ensure that they don't have easy access to gadgets until they're old enough to use them responsibly.

If necessary, we can "interfere" in their digital space, demanding to know where they're spending time online. Parents who refuse to take this risk are essentially teaching their children that rights come without attached responsibilities and autonomy is possible without accountability.

Above all, we can teach teenagers how to ask the right questions about what they're being asked to think and do. We can arm them with enough wisdom to make their own healthy choices.

 


To hear Mal Fletcher's initial BBC Radio interview on this issue, click here.






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