Research Investigates Teen Risk-Taking
> 2/4/2008 2:39:17 PM

Adolescence has come to be associated with risky behavior, andit's not surprising that researchers have long questioned why manyproblem 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 theyare unaware of the consequences of their actions or because they viewthemselves as immune from danger, research has shown that the oppositeis true. In 2002, researchers from the University of California, SanFrancisco found that teens were less likely than young adults, aged20-30, to see themselves as invulnerable. Teens also overestimatedtheir risk for adverse outcomes from dangerous situations, like, forexample, contracting an STD from unprotected sex. As this researchimplies, teens already understand how vulnerable they are and, in manycases, exaggerate their vulnerability.

In her own research,Dr. Valerie Reyna of Cornell University has found that teens do weighthe 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-termconsequences. Knowing this, Dr. Reyna has written about what she termsa gist-based approachto risk taking. She believes that as we age and gain experience, ourthinking patterns change. We begin making decisions based on ouroverall sense of the situation, the "gist." While teens tend to weighthe benefits and risks of a circumstance before reaching a decision,adults are able to make logical conclusions by looking at the gist ofthe situation. As Dr. Reyna explains in the New York Times article:

Forexample, while an adolescent might consider playing Russian roulettefor a $1 million payoff, a normal adult would not give it a moment'sthought. Cutting directly to the chase, the adult would be moreinclined to think: "No way! No amount of money is worth a one in sixchance of dying."

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

Manyresearchers agree that parents who play an active role in theirchildren's lives can help them to make healthier choices duringadolescence. Our ability to learn from experience improves as we age,and teens, especially younger teens, need help making responsibledecisions. Parents should be involved with their teenaged children andhelp them to avoid situations where they will be tempted to make riskychoices, as may be the case at an unsupervised party. With support fromtheir parents, teens will be better able to test their independencewithout having to endure the long-term consequences of risky behavior.

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