Why Teenagers Do Dumb Things
Teenagers do lots of dumb things. Having been one, there's certainly a story or two around risk-taking behaviors that seemed like a good idea at the time. We've all been there. In raising two of them myself now, though, it seems to me like these are issues of developmental ability, not lackadaisicalness ... skill, not will.
One study by Jessica Cohen in Nature Neuroscience compared adolescent decision making to that of adults and children. Results were from a small pool but statistically significant. Findings: children do not fully understand reward potential and so are not as motivated to take risks. Adults understand the reward potential but have better-developed governors that understand risk potentials. Adolescents are primed to seek out rewards, but don't anticipate risk well.
Teens often do not have the vocabulary to understand risk very well, and do not have frameworks to evaluate it. Adults by contrast often have flawed risk frameworks, but adults at least have some kind of framework. See this example from an Australian child advice site with interviews of teens on the subject of risk. It's obvious from reading the commentary that teens do not think about risk in abstract ways.
Combine teens' undeveloped risk assessment with hormonally driven development of several brain systems, including the amygdala driving fear and fight-or-flight response, and you get a challenging mental cocktail. When fear and reward are both exaggerated, and risk-taking is not metered by corresponding systems, you get the results we all know and love: wild behavior and mood swings. At least we are not alone in this as parents.
Findings in YRBS and elsewhere also show that risk behaviors in adolescents are markedly more prevalent when in groups. Teens are notoriously sensitive to social standing and are keenly sensitive to potential changes in that standing, by actions they themselves take or by successes or failures in others. It would seem that peer sorting and associated mating behaviors – "showing off in front of the girls" – drives a lot of risk-taking. One wonders whether this really stops in adulthood or if adults are just slightly better at it.
The "traditional" ways of teens getting into trouble – "sex and drugs and rock and roll" – seem to be gradually becoming better understood and managed. The US Center for Disease Control's longitudinal YRBS Survey on youth risk behaviors looks at how those behaviors have gradually evolved over time in American teens. Teen pregnancy and sexual activity is down, drug use is down, physical violence is down.
Looking anecdotally, I can say my children have grown up in a substantially different environment than I did. The educational system has actively engaged on social and emotional development for my kids raised in the 2010s. They are explicitly taught resiliency, empathy, and coping skills. They are asked to express themselves more creatively. They have been given a foundation of self-assessment and of empowerment that was not part of the 1980s curriculum.
There is some evidence that teaching such skills early on in life can help build an effective framework for coping and managing risk. Effectiveness of coping skills has been found to have positive long-term effects (here and here and here for example studies).
One set of teen risks are up quite a bit, however. Psychological risk – electronic bulling, anxiety, use of opiods, and suicidal tendencies – are all on the rise. Our increasingly-connected society is creating, or exacerbating – entirely new categories of risk.
Connection can bring a new understanding of risk. I have found today's teens to be much better informed than I was at a similar age. They build their own views on complex subjects. They are digital natives, and they are keenly sensitive to online fakery. They know to seek alternative information sources (something many adults I know have not prioritized). Clearly connectivity brings the opportunity for building risk frameworks.
But there are well-publicized incidents of cyberbullying and harassment that are obviously of real concern. Kids have been driven to suicide by these issues, and drug abuse clearly has migrated in response to those concerns.
I spent some time this holiday season setting up a private post office box so my children could receive real-life mail from online connections without giving out their "real" names or addresses. This was at my kids' request, not mine. Both kids have public presences dating to pre-teen years, but both also manage this fairly carefully and maintain anonymous space. Clearly kids are aware of the risks of this new connected world and are starting in on cultural norms that will protect them in this world.
Risk management is not solved by information gathering and management, but those are preconditions to successfully managing risk. I see today's youth being increasingly demanding of that information, in part to manage the risks of the past as well as the risks of the future. They are nobody's fools. I suspect Tinder's days are numbered.