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Why Do Teens Take More Risks? Do They?

By Yvette Vignando - 1st November 2012

As two of our boys are teens, this subject interests me. A recent piece of research caught my eye – it questioned whether teens’ reputation for risky behaviour was really due to having an innate tolerance for risk.

I think there's some evidence that brain biology also makes it more likely that a teenager would take a risk – a kind of impetuousness. And I thought that teens might often seek out risk because they simply want to prove themselves more adult, or prove that they're perfectly capable of dealing with a challenge. And I wondered if the adolescent brain also seeks the adrenaline (and other hormones) that come from thrills connected with increased risk? Anyway, clearly I’m no neuroscientist, so I just read the research with interest and try my best to understand our teens. As it happens, so far (and as far as I know), our teens haven't taken any crazy risks. Our oldest does get more excitement than many others his age however, as he’s learning to fly a ‘plane.

A study by researchers at New York University, Yale’s School of Medicine, and Fordham University suggests that one reason why adolescents tolerate situations where the outcome is uncertain is that they have a higher level of comfort with “the ambiguous”.  And this result could help in suggesting new ways for parents and teachers to talk to teenagers about risk.

             “Our findings show that teenagers enter unsafe situations not because they are drawn to dangerous or risky situations, but, rather, because they aren’t informed enough about the odds of the consequences of their actions,” said Agnieszka Tymula, a post-doctoral researcher at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once they truly understand a risky situation, they are, if anything, even more risk averse than adults. The study also offers new possibilities for communicating with this age group—providing adolescents with statistics highlighting the risks of dangerous behaviors or training that allows them to learn about risks in a safe way, which may be effective in limiting them.”

The method used to reach these findings was an experiment involving teens aged 12 to 17 and adults aged 30 to 50. Using a lottery-style scenario, the risk the study's subjects were confronted with was financial. In my amateur opinion, the scenario used in this experiment isn't close enough to the emotional and social complexity of many of the situations confronting teens in the 21st century to draw a firm conclusion about adolescent risk-taking. But still, the study's conclusions pose an interesting question for parents: are we telling our teens enough about some of the risky situations they might get involved in?

In this experiment, it was found that “adolescents accepted significantly fewer risky lotteries than did the adults – they were more risk-averse when the risks they faced were well understood.”

So, parents of teens, what are your thoughts about this? Do you think that in general, teens who are well-informed about risk in situations (e.g. drugs, alcohol, driving, sex) take less risk?

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