Teens and Risk-Taking
by Suzanne Hadley Gosselin on 11/22/2006 at 1:47 PM
In "Go Ahead, I Dare You," Newsweek columnist Wray Herbert presents new scientific research on why teenagers do stupid things. A study by psychologists Valerie Reyna and Frank Farley published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest revealed that when asked seemingly inane questions like, "Is it a good thing to set your hair on fire?" teens actually had to mull over the question before they answered. Wray writes:
It has long been assumed (and taught) that teenagers do stupid things because they can't think very far into the future and therefore can't fathom harm or death. But according to Reyna and Farley's review of the scientific literature, there is no evidence for the “myth of immortality." Indeed, they demonstrate that if anything teenagers overestimate the risks of such things as drunk driving and unprotected sex. They just do them anyway. Why? Because they have weighed the risks and weighed the benefits and made a cold calculation that the benefits outweigh the risks. That benefit may be immediate pleasure, as with drugs and sugary foods, or the emotional connectedness that comes with fitting in.
Supplying teens with more information about risks, therefore, is not likely to change risky behavior.
Indeed, such interventions could backfire, since most adolescents already overestimate perils of risky behavior. So, for example, trying to teach teenagers to "drink responsibly" is probably an unwise strategy, since it plays right into their immature habit of overthinking everything. It would make more sense, in light of the new research, to enforce drinking ages and restrict teenage driving and otherwise eliminate opportunities for risk.
Perhaps we give teens too much responsibility by providing them with so much information about risky behaviors — such as drug use, sex and alcohol — and expecting them to make wise decisions. The better option would be to keep them out of high-risk situations altogether. Adults need to provide more actual boundaries. When I was a teen, my parents did not allow me to go somewhere alone with a guy. I understood that rule and could follow it. I never arrived in a sexually tempting situation where I had to weigh the risks against the benefits. Considering some teens actually have to think about whether it's a good idea to set their hair on fire, I'm thankful for that.