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  • Jennifer Rogers, Health Educator

The science behind teen decision-making: are adolescents more conservative than their “risk taking”

"Kids grow up so fast" is how the saying goes--and that rings true with many parents. As kids reach their milestone birthdays--5, 10, 16--and gain more autonomy, many parents wonder "how we can keep our kids 'kids' just a little longer?" And, as the teen years get closer questions like "how much freedom is too much freedom?" and "how much should I limit my child?" can arise. It can be complicated!

As health educators, we strive to keep kids healthy and safe, too. So when we're developing lessons to build decision-making skills, we look to the latest science-based research. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, the data are clear--comprehensive programs rooted in preventive education are most effective in promoting positive health outcomes in youth. And most experts agree that when it comes to educating children about risky behaviors, it's better to start sooner than later--at least two years before children are likely to come face to face with these risks. This means 7 and 8 year olds aren't too young to start learning about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol in age-appropriate ways, and that learning about sexual health and development should be part of elementary school curricula.

The positive outcomes of preventive education have been seen, possibly most widely, in the success of the U.S.’s comprehensive sex ed programs compared to abstinence-only interventions, in reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. In fact, the positive benefits of preventive education-based interventions, as opposed to programs that use scare tactics to keep kids “on the straight and narrow,” extend far past pregnancy prevention efforts. Recent research shows that while the prefrontal cortex--the decision-making centers of teens’ brains--are still in development until their mid 20s, adolescents are actually less inclined to be risk takers when they’re equipped with ample knowledge.

In a recent Scientific American article, based on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1], researchers who compared the decision-making tendencies of teens to other age groups found that teens were far more cautious than many would expect. When adolescents were well-informed about the potential outcomes associated with risky behaviors, they were actually more conservative in their behaviors. Of the groups studied: college-aged, parent-aged, and grandparent-aged individuals, teens took about as many risks as did the grandparents! But, when teens were unclear about the consequences, that’s when they were more likely to take a chance. And while this study focused on financial risks, researchers say the results are applicable to behaviors like drinking and driving, smoking, and drug use, too.

Believe it or not, a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in many

ways, compared to 1991 data, today’s teens are engaging in less risky behavior overall--they’re less likely to engage in physical fights, carry a gun, smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, binge drink or have sex. That said, other behaviors like texting while driving are on the rise.

But, when it comes to some risky behaviors, Lynn Ponton, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a recent NPR interview, “It's a tool to define, develop and consolidate their identity. Healthy risk-taking is a big part of growth.”

And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s important to allow kids to take healthy risks--and even fail. So what are healthy risks? Playing sports, acting in a school play, running for student government, taking up a new hobby, or meeting a new friend. Unhealthy risks could include drunk driving, unsafe sexual activity, and/or drinking and smoking to excess. Allowing young people to explore healthy risks could satisfy a teens’ need to push boundaries, while preventing them from taking part in unsafe behaviors.

So what does all this mean? When it comes to helping young people make positive decisions there’s no silver bullet. But when adults model positive behaviors at home, help youth identify healthy risks to explore, and provide them with preventive education well in advance so teens are equipped with the knowledge they need to make thoughtful decisions should they be faced with potentially unhealthy risk-taking situations, we can make a big difference.

Sources:

1. Tymula A., et al. (2012). Adolescents’ Risk-Taking Behavior is Driven by Tolerance to Ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 17135–17140. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207144109

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