Teens Overestimate Risks—and Decide they’re Worth Taking

These teenagers, they think they’re invincible. Youth is wasted on the young. These adages are ubiquitous in both national forums and family dinner conversations, but the truth about teens and risk may lie somewhere outside of proverbs.

There is certainly an amount of recklessness that comes with the onslaught of hormones and independence otherwise known as adolescence. However, teenage risky behavior—from unprotected sex to drug use to reckless driving—might be caused not by an overabundance of confidence but by a lack of hopefulness in the future. A recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota of over 20,000 youth in grades 7 through 12 found that nearly 15 percent of teens surveyed believed they had only a 50% chance of living to age 35. These pessimistic teens were more likely than their future-oriented peers to take chances with their lives. The 15% were more likely to have attempted suicide or to have engaged in violent physical altercations ending in serious injury.

In adolescence, risky behavior often starts with sexual activity. The odds that a sexually active female high school student used a condom during her last sexual encounter are only 1 in 1.82 (55%), and the odds that a sexually active male high school student used a condom during his last sexual encounter are 1 in 1.46 (68%). Furthermore, teens who think they will die early were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV over seven years, according to the Minnesota study.

In fact, instead of believing they are superheroes, teens tend to overestimate the potential negative effects of their actions, like drinking and driving. A Cornell University study published in the September, 2006 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that teens actually took a tiny bit longer to mull over risks than adults. The problem is, despite their overestimation of risk, teenage brains often conclude that enjoyment outweighs danger—that the fun to be had cruising the town with six packs and some buddies is worth taking a big chance. While the odds of any person dying in a transportation accident are 1 in 6,279, the odds a teenager will die from a transportation accident in a year are nearly twice as large: 1 in 3,821.

Testing limits and pushing boundaries are normal for adolescents, as is a somewhat hedonistic attitude—if it feels good right now, why not do it? But if it’s true that for some teens risk taking stems from feelings of doom rather than invulnerability, parents and educators might do better to focus on helping kids to formulate an optimistic and more long-term picture of their future, rather than waving news clippings of fatal car crashes.

That said, many psychologists maintain that when it comes to younger teens, parental supervision is necessary. As Dorothy Parker said, “the best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires.”

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