The Imaginary Audience?

Brad M. Griffin | Jun 16, 2010

Beginning in early adolescence, kids experience a common feeling that they have an imaginary audiencea very real sense that everyones looking at me. I remember how painful that was, especially given how much time I spent on my hair in the late 80’s.

The new question has become, is that audience actually imaginary?

New research highlighted in recent articles like Stupid Teenage Tricks, for a Virtual Audience, wonders aloud if the perpetual availability of online and mobile self-broadcasting is also boosting risk-taking behaviors. In other words, are teenagers taking more risks because they can post their outcomes online, or are we just able to see more of this stuff because of new media? Researchers like Dr. Megan A. Moreno, an adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Wisconsin, are observing:

For kids in middle school, a really normal part of that is the perception that youre on stage, and that everybody is looking at you. But for kids today its a different world theyre growing up in. Its a world where there really is that audience.

Research continues to affirm that risk-taking is biologically inherent to adolescence. This Futurity article notes that the brains neurotransmitter system is hardwired to reward kids for risk-taking because it might turn out well (you knowfun, exciting, and maybe someone will watch it on YouTube and Ill become the next viral sensation).

Case in point this week: Abby Sunderlands attempt at world-circumnavigation (and critiques like this one of the parental responsibilities of risk-taking superkids). The grand irony, of course, is that were all watching her. And the fact that her boats mast was snapped by 25-foot waves in a remote ocean stormleading to a highly-publicized search-and-rescue missionmeans she is receiving even more of a real audience to reward her efforts than if shed made it around the globe without a glitch.

So what do you think: How does the shift from imaginary to real (even if virtual) audience impact adolescent risk-taking? And what kinds of conversations can we have with kids about it?

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.


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