Risk Taking During Adolescence

Last June on Long Island, a 15-year old girl driving a stolen SUV with nine other passengers crashed on the Meadowbrook State Parkway, killing three teens and injuring seven others who were crowded in the back of the car. It was “skip school day” for the teens who were headed to the beach at the time of the deadly accident. Their designated driver was intoxicated, so the 15-year-old girl stepped behind the wheel. None of the passengers was licensed to drive.

It is an all too familiar tragedy, prompting grieving, bewildered communities to ponder why unhealthy risk taking is so prevalent among teens and what can be done to deter it.

The data on the pervasiveness of unhealthy risk taking in adolescents is staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitor risky behavior in teens using the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). The most recent YRBSS study collected data about adolescent risk behaviors in a survey over 15,000 high school students in the U.S. The data revealed that within 30 days of the survey: 39% of high school drivers had texted or e-mailed while driving, 17% rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking, 14% had taken prescription drugs without a prescription, 20% had used marijuana and 46% percent of sexually active students had not used a condom.

According to the CDC, the most common negative risk-taking in adolescents includes smoking, drug and alcohol use, stealing, self-mutilation, unsafe sex, eating disorders, sexting and gang violence. Research published by Child Trends found that engaging in a risky behavior is often a gateway to pursuing other risky behaviors, thus increasing the likelihood of injury and victimization. Adolescence is indeed a dangerous time: the death rate among 15- to 19-year-olds globally is about 35% greater than that among 10- to 14-year-olds (Terzian, et al.).

Do teens consider themselves to be invincible, immune from the dangers that seem so obvious to adults? Or is it that they fail to recognize the potential consequences of risky behaviors, and need to be constantly reminded of the inherent dangers of pursuing risky activities?

Surprisingly, the answer is most likely none of the above. A growing body of scientific research has shown that teens are cognizant of their vulnerability. A pioneering study by Susan Millstein and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California, San Francisco, found that adolescents tend to overestimate risks, including both low probability events (such as HIV infection from unprotected sex) and higher probability events (including pregnancy from unprotected sex) (Millstein and Halpern-Felsher).

So, if teens are aware of the risks of these behaviors, why do they continue to engage in them? According to Dr. Valerie Reyna, Co-director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research at the College of Human Ecology of Cornell University, when teens make decisions they are apt to weigh benefits more heavily than risks. Dr. Reyna co-authored a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience that asserts adolescents are drawn to novel and exciting experiences despite their evident risks. This propensity, known as sensation seeking, peaks around age 19 in males and 16 in females (Romer, et al).

A separate study by New York University neuroscientists published in Scientific American attributes risk-seeking in teens to a higher tolerance of uncertainty, or unknown risks, than adults. It seems teens are drawn to the unknown (Tymula and Glimcher).

This penchant for risk-taking may stem from inherent biological factors that make exploring the unknown less daunting for adolescents as it is for adults. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the drive for reward (or “thrill”), surges during adolescence. Dopamine also enables the brain to learn from experience, and when people try things for the first time they often make mistakes. Learning through experimentation is core to human cognitive development. While teens may embrace risk-seeking as a form of exploration, but they are also making choices that can adversely impact the rest of their lives.

This evolving research on how the adolescent brain works may explain why traditional preventive/intervention education programs have had limited success in helping teens. An article in Scientific American co-authored by Dr. Reyna and Frank Farley, former President of the American Psychological Association, observes that the strategy of rationalizing with teens and emphasizing accurate risk perception is “inherently flawed,” as most adolescents already overestimate the consequences of their risks and feel vulnerable (Reyna and Farley).

If appealing to teens’ rationality doesn’t help, then what actions can parents and educators take to curb unhealthy risk taking in teens? One effective solution is to give teens opportunities to experiment in a safe environment, such as a driving simulator that demonstrates to sober teens what it’s like to be in a car with a drunk driver. This can help teens develop an intuition for worst case scenarios, in which they understand the gist, or essence, of the situation in its totality. Dr. Reyna has led studies on “gist-based” thinking, which found that teens who learn to focus on potential disastrous consequences, instead of just the chances of a negative outcome, are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. This research forms the basis for novel approaches in education programs aimed at limiting risky behaviors.

According to Dr. Lynn Ponton, author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things That They Do, redirecting teens’ natural desire to take risks into healthy channels can help them mature into responsible adults while also keeping them safe.

Contrary to what most people believe, not all risk taking is harmful. In fact, taking healthy, positive risks is a way for teens to gain independence and self-esteem by finding their limits and testing authority. Positive risk-taking includes participating in sports, auditioning for a play, taking challenging courses, trying outdoor adventures, volunteering in an unknown situation, and seeking out new friends. These activities are considered risky because they include the prospect of failure. Lessons learned through taking these risks, including how to win and lose graciously, are basic tools teens can use to shape their identities and develop into well-rounded adults. Positive risk-taking can preclude negative risk-taking behavior. For example, a teenage girl who plays sports is less likely to have sex early and more likely to have a positive body image and self-confidence.

Policies aimed at limiting opportunities for risk-taking have also proved effective. These include graduated-drivers licensing programs that require young drivers to gain experience before they are permitted to drive with teenage passengers. Community leaders and educators have also advocated for increasing the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes and prohibiting the sale of alcohol near school zones.

Another effective strategy: get more sleep! A September 2018 study by scientists at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital found a close correlation between insufficient sleep and dangerous behaviors, particularly in regard to self-harm. Teens who slept for less than six hours per night were three times more likely to consider suicide and four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who slept eight hours or more. Teens are getting less sleep than ever before (Weaver, et al.). The CDC estimates that on school nights only 27% of students are getting eight or more hours of sleep, which is the amount recommended for optimal health. The 73% of adolescents who are getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night are more prone to depression and poor judgement, including a host of adverse risk-taking behaviors. Both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have endorsed delaying school start times in response to numerous studies that have shown the benefits of increasing sleep.

Parents should also be aware of the influence their own actions have on their children. Throughout their development, children watch, learn from and imitate their parents. Ideally, parents should model what it looks like to drink in moderation and drive cautiously. If parents engage in risky behaviors, such as taking drugs and sexual promiscuity, their teens are likely to also.

Taking risks is a natural part of growing up. When teens make mistakes, parents should relay their concerns without passing judgment in order to build trust and encourage more communication. Today’s teens are growing up in a fast-paced, high-tech world that is more challenging and daunting than the one their parents experienced when they were coming of age. Adolescents are supposed to take risks – parents just need to make sure they’re taking the right ones.