Researchers Investigate Teen Risk-Taking
> 12/20/2007 12:42:05 PM

Adolescence has come to be associated with risky behavior, and it's not surprising that researchers have long questioned why many problem behaviors, such as drinking, drug use, and unprotected sex, often begin during adolescence. This week, the New York Times looked at some past studies that have investigated the factors involved in teenaged decision making.

Although we tend to believe that teens make risky choices because they are unaware of the consequences of their actions or because they view themselves as immune from danger, research has shown that the opposite is true. In 2002, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco found that teens were less likely than young adults, aged 20-30, to see themselves as invulnerable. Teens also overestimated their risk for adverse outcomes from dangerous situations, like, for example, contracting an STD from unprotected sex. As this research implies, teens already understand how vulnerable they are and, in many cases, exaggerate their vulnerability.

In her own research, Dr. Valerie Reyna of Cornell University has found that teens do weigh the risks and benefits of their decisions. When teens make bad choices, it's because they tend to give more importance to perceived benefits, such as immediate social acceptance, than they give to the long-term consequences. Knowing this, Dr. Reyna has written about what she terms a gist-based approach to risk taking. She believes that as we age and gain experience, our thinking patterns change. We begin making decisions based on our overall sense of the situation, the "gist." While teens tend to weigh the benefits and risks of a circumstance before reaching a decision, adults are able to make logical conclusions by looking at the gist of the situation. As Dr. Reyna explains in the New York Times article:

For example, while an adolescent might consider playing Russian roulette for a $1 million payoff, a normal adult would not give it a moment's thought. Cutting directly to the chase, the adult would be more inclined to think: "No way! No amount of money is worth a one in six chance of dying."

Past research has pointed to other reasons for the risky behavior of adolescence. Last year, researchers implicated the brainís maturation process as one possiblee cause. Regions of the brain involved in emotions and social responses become more active during adolescence, and teens are greatly influenced by their emotions and social pressure. However, regions of the brain that help us control our behavior have not fully matured by adolescence and continue to develop until we are in our mid-20s. Because these two areas of the brain mature at different speeds, teens tend to take more risks when in the presence of friends.

Many researchers agree that parents who play an active role in their children's lives can help them to make healthier choices during adolescence. Our ability to learn from experience improves as we age, and teens, especially younger teens, need help making responsible decisions. Parents should be involved with their teenaged children and help them to avoid situations where they will be tempted to make risky choices, as may be the case at an unsupervised party. With support from their parents, teens will be better able to test their independence without having to endure the long-term consequences of risky behavior.

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