Why our kids are more at risk than we were – and what to do about it

Everyone knows that life today is in some ways more challenging than ever before. Social media makes windows into the private lives of unwary, unprepared individuals. Political and physical turmoil abroad renders travel increasingly risky. Scams are more complex and more convincing. Data is more vulnerable. The younger generation is both more susceptible and less protected. They may have more tools to help them navigate. These can include online advice and counselling. But these on their own are unlikely to be enough. Students depart on gap years and holidays across the globe. This is often without the forethought and knowledge to avoid or at least mitigate the dangers. At home too, young adults are easy targets for data and identify theft and fraud. CIFAS, leaders in fraud prevention, reports that young adults are targeted 51% more than adults (https://www.cifas.org.uk/fraudscape_pr). We need to engage more effectively with young people in order to discuss these risks in a thoughtful and non-preaching manner. One such way is through the medium of narrative and structured discussion…

James is an 18-year-old boy on his gap year in India. He and two friends have gone out for the evening to a bar in New Delhi. They are now making their way back to their hostel. James’s two mates have grabbed a rickshaw ahead of him, telling him to meet them later. James flags down a rickshaw, gives the address and nods off. He wakes up being prodded by the driver, in an unfamiliar location and being asked for 500 rupees – rather than the agreed 50. James argues and the pair step out as things begin to get more agitated. Some of the rickshaw driver’s friends walk over and get involved. James is without his friends, unsure of his location and potentially in danger.

 James has fallen into several pitfalls to which his age group is prey when travelling abroad. Firstly, his friends have left him to fend for himself. They believe him to be sufficiently ‘independent’ to sort himself out. Secondly, James has been fooled by a common scam. Bartering is far more common in an eastern cultural context than a western one. Some vendors take advantage of this when dealing with those who seem less experienced, raising prices significantly. And James’s reaction suggests aggressiveness to the rickshaw driver. His fear in being alone and a misunderstanding of cultural context has got him into an unpleasant scenario. An everyday situation has developed in a dangerous way for which James and his friends are unprepared. But that didn’t need to be the case….

Amber is the daughter of Jonathan, the owner of McKinnon Motors, a large automobile company. Amber has just finished her A-Levels and is celebrating her hard work with her friends. Her parents, concerned for her safety and the family’s reputation, have given her a lecture before she leaves for the evening, complete with a long list of ‘do-nots’. Amber, embarrassed and annoyed, escapes with her year group to a club in town. The next day, Amber wakes up in the house of one of her friends. She doesn’t remember much about the night before. But, on opening her phone, she sees a compromising photo of herself at the top of her social media feeds.

Amber has learnt the hard way that the ease with which people can post photos and text is not conducive to careful consideration. Firstly, Amber put up a very personal photo. That placed her reputation at risk and had other adverse implications. The heady atmosphere engendered by a night out with friends is a poor environment for thinking about these things. Secondly, Amber’s emotional stability could be at risk as a result of the ensuing humiliation. We often fail to think about the first-order impacts – let alone the second-order ones. In the longer term, these could be even more damaging. Amber and others in similar situations may well struggle to rebuild reputation in the eyes of friends, relations, tutors and employers. There may be longer-term emotional and financial implications. This is all because of a bad decision about a photo taken on the spur of the moment.

Laura is two days into freshers’ week at university. Up to now, she has had a relatively cloistered upbringing and schooling. It feels to her as though she is enjoying her first real taste of freedom. With her parents away a lot, Laura didn’t have an easy time at school. She suffered from social anxiety, tended to be quite quiet and did not make friends easily. Now she and some new acquaintances are at one of the university club nights. One of the girls suggests to Laura that they visit the bathroom together. There, the girl produces Class A drugs from her bag. Eager to impress, Laura allows herself to be persuaded to take some. She is now in a situation for which she is unprepared, amongst people she doesn’t know, who won’t necessarily understand how to help if things go wrong and who may be reluctant to call for help, for fear of legal implications.

 Laura’s privileged upbringing and schooling have not been accompanied by development of the social skills and capability to deal with such situations. And if not the temptation to “do” drugs, situations might include drink driving, a destructive issue to do with a relationship – or shoplifting or academic plagiarism. But did anyone ever discuss with Laura how she might react and respond when faced with these possibilities or temptations? Without appropriate education and reflectiveness, the risks are greater than they need to be. Students might not consider accessing the counselling and advice that should be on hand – and if they do, it will probably only be after things have gone wrong. Seen through such a prism, mundane and non-physical threats can be every bit as dangerous as the more obvious risks. This is especially if they have not been considered in advance.

In conclusion, it is neither feasible nor desirable that teenagers and young adults should be prevented from enjoying themselves and experiencing life with all its thrills and potential spills. Nor is it helpful to be alarmist about the spills. Engendering fear as a tool, lecturing and providing lists of “do-nots” – as given to Amber in the example above – are unlikely to be respected in the way we would want and may well not be remembered when the chips are down. Rather, we need to engage in a different way, using the power of the anecdote to broach the possibilities and as an introduction to discussing the range of options – in short, the “what ifs”. Inevitably, what will occur won’t exactly replicate what has been discussed – but at least some mental preparedness is likely to have been instilled through appropriate workshops. Trial and error is an important part of growing up for all of us. But some thought and preparation beforehand will at least reduce the likelihood and impact of the trial in question. Thus the outcome will not be as bad. We should recall that we too struggled to find our own ways in the face of challenges when we were young. Just as we needed appropriate support, patience and understanding to do so – and in many cases still do, from time to time – so does the new generation.


This blog was written by Harrison Brewer who can be contacted on harrison@deverellassociates.com