Why do teenagers take too many risks?

It turns out they estimate the costs of drinking and drug-taking pretty accurately, they simply see the benefits as higher than older people do.  If anything the teenagers see the risky activity as riskier than it really is.  For that reason, a focus on informing teenagers about the true risk of the activity might alleviate rather than heighten their concerns.

Obviously the teenagers are wrong in pursuing so much risk. 

There is then a breathtaking conclusion.  First, teenagers need to be taught how to recognize the "gist" of a situation, namely to go beyond explicit calculation and see it as older people do.  Second:

Dr. Reyna warned: “Younger adolescents don’t learn
from consequences as well as older adolescents do. So rather than
relying on them to make reasoned choices or to learn from the school of
hard knocks, a better approach is to supervise them.”

In other
words, young teenagers need to be protected from themselves by removing
opportunities for risk-taking – for example, by filling their time with
positive activities and protecting them from risky situations that are
likely to be tempting or that require “behavioral inhibition.”

Here is the full article.  I conclude that we still don’t know why teenagers take so many risks.


I wasted five years of my life as a teenager and I still can't figure out why, at least beyond anything as simple as peer influences, a love of blowing things up, the thrill of rebellion and drinking a lot.

How about signaling and evolutionary fitness. The risk takers supposedly get the girls and propagate into the future, the rest don't.

I'm with Zvi and Mark - why not believe the gains from risk are in fact higher for teens?

or, come to think of it, that evolutionary fitness has anything to do with it at all.

The trouble with the idea that teenagers are acting wisely but simply profit more from risky behaviour is that the age group 'teenager' is small, and both slightly younger and older people behave different. I would say 15-year old are more or less the 'stupity peak', and even people a few years older already think teenagers take stupid risks and have superficial opinions. I find it hard to believe teenagers can get rational gains from certain risks that college age people can't.

Because they're stupid. They think they are indestructible. We used to have chaperones. They supervised and prevented teen pregnancy. Ms. Spears could have benefitted from one.

If teenagers are actually better at evaluating risks and rewards the question becomes "why don't we subject the risky decisions made by adults to supervision by teenagers". Maybe assign "Well Being" to the teens in high school first.

I have to go with some of the others here. Teenagers are not 'Obviously' pursuing too much risk. Our culture treats teenagers and younger adults in terrible ways. They have every right to make choices about their lives, and to judge the risks and benefits according to their own criteria. The more we attempt to impose some universal measurement of risk, the more we damage their ability to develop their own personality and sense of choice.

They live in a command economy with no property or legal rights and behave accordingly.

Alex, is this really you? :-)

I wasted 3 years of my life in college, and deeply resent not wasting that 4th, and at least 2 out of 4 of my years in high school. The different valuation makes a lot of sense. I don't value being falling-down-drunk as an adult, but it really was a lot of fun when I was 17-18. And I don't necessarily think this was a false perception, either. But, of course, now in my 30s, I find such activity by today's teenagers obnoxious. And since I vote and have more money than teenagers, of course it should be banned and discouraged.

@pm: "(Another reason for teenag antics: the pre-frontal cortex isn't fully developed until, like, 25.)"

I have heard this is somewhat of a myth. The brain never stops developing, and delayed emotional maturity is more a result of culture than genes. We treat teens like children --> they act like it. And vice-versa in other cultures. Causation/correlation, etc.

So, while driving to work, I was mulling over this post a bit, and it came to me that what we're looking at here is almost preaching an "abstinance only" theory for teenage risk... Anyone think that'll work? I sure don't.

Also, about the theories derived from prefrontal cortex development, it seems to me that most of the reasoning comes down to the fallacious, "teenagers' brains are different from adults' brains. (By assumption) teenagers are less intelligent than adults. Therefore, adult brains are superior to teenagers. Hence, teenagers' Therefore teenagers are less intelligent than adults." In other words, the only evidence for the differences constituting superior mental ability on the part of adults comes from the presupposition that the behavior of adults is better and indicative of superior intelligence. In the case where the experimental evidence simply indicates that teenagers' brains are still developing, I find it particularly galling that people assume that the absence of development in adult brains indicates *superior* intelligence.

Teenagers have not experienced life fully, so they do things that other people have already done, but learned to stop doing.

Sometimes teenagers do things that they know they shouldn't do simply because they need to become autonomous individuals and learn how to live without their parents. This may be "rebellion," but it is not done out of rejecting their parent's values, but simply because they psychological need to break their own mentality of dependence.

I thought the reason was hormones.

They live in a command economy with no property or legal rights and behave accordingly.
Agreed. Teenagers are, for the most part, not allowed the freedom of voluntary association which most adults are. Because of this, the supply of social acceptance is very limited, and social acceptance has a very inelastic demand curve. So they are willing to pay more (in the form of risk-taking) to be accepted. To make matters worse, they have nothing but second-hand knowledge of how the world works outside of what they are allowed to experience.

Imagine for a moment that, as an adult, the only people you were able to interact with would not willingly engage in much of any voluntary exchange with you. You also have no first-hand knowledge of any other sort of social arrangement beyond your current situation. What lengths would you go to gain the cooperation of your peers?

Maybe if we got them out of coerced schooling, let them start working at a young age (I can hear the cries of "child labor!" now) and make their own choices about their lives, they'd seem more reasonable to us.

Could be a manifestation of the Doomsday Hypothesis. The longer you live, the longer you are likely to live, and so your discount horizon increases, and risky behavior becomes more expensive on a PV basis.

"Obviously the teenagers are wrong in pursuing so much risk."

That is clearly said as a parent, not as an economist.

I agree with everyone else here who suspect that teenagers are pursuing the proper level of risk. (It doesn't mean that when I'm a parent I won't try to get my teenager to pursue less risk.)

Really, the only response worth posting to that "obviously, ..."


fuck. you.

Juan is partly on track, but then fell off. For one thing most of these comments
are way off. The issue is young adolescents, not teenagers in general. So, we are
talking about middle schoolers, or maybe ninth graders at most. Think those 13 year
old girs who are so insanely and irrationally unpleasant to their mothers, or the
boys of the same age who are just completely alienated.

So, there would appear to be several factors at work. 1) Thousands of years ago there
were not as many dangers from acting out as there are today, no cars, no killer drugs,
no booze, no guns, and so on; 2) puberty has just hit, but one does not understand it
or know what is really about, or is getting laid, so crazed frustration (and were any
of you socially satisfied in middle or junior high school, and I am not just addressing
all the geeks here); 3) the sudden appearance of puberty means that one is now ready
to attempt to become independent of one's parents, the "command economy," which was
probably as repressive and demanding and onerous 40,000 years ago as it is today. So,
one acts out, does not fully understand why one is doing so, and does not understand
the consequences.

Heck, what we are dealing with here is why one is allowed to drive at 16, but not 14.

Shouldn't we be careful to distinguish between risk to themselves and risk to others?

By the time the typical child becomes a teenager, he knows that his parents are grossly overprotective and that most of their fears are overblown. But since one of the things his parents have always tried to "protect" him from is hearing any advice contrary to their own about those same possible risks, to the extent his parents have succeeded in preventing him from getting advice he can trust, he has no way to find out exactly which of those allegations of risk are true and which are unfounded except by experiment.

The solution to this problem is to allow kids to hear advice -- and see examples of behavior -- from sources of their own choosing. Schools ought to adopt the principle of always enabling kids to do this regardless of their parents' wishes.

Example 1: Most countries in Europe have no age requirement for drinking alcohol. As a result, the alcohol overdose deaths common on American college campuses don't happen -- and drunk driving also is much less common, even in countries where the law is no more strict than in the US.

Example 2: The Norse countries are as Christian as America -- arguably more so, since they still have established state churches -- but they don't try to keep children ignorant on the topic of sex. Most of them are told everything well before grade school, and sex can even be seen on over-the-air TV. As a result, there are NO child predators in those countries. If such a crime were attempted, even a preschool child would know to run away.

"Duh, people, the line about "Obviously" was a joke..."


I know both of these points have already been touched upon, but they bear repeating.

When I look back at high school, once of the dominant characteristics was the social stratification. There seemed to be a continuum of those that were more cool/less cool, and it was always a struggle to strive to the top. Those at the top were almost fawned over in a way, and got the best looking girls. In retrospect it's all silly, but back then these social tensions were very real.

Not only that, but even though the "society" was highly stratified, it was also mobile to some extent. If you've watched the movie Superbad, it is very accurate in the sense that while three kids could be outcasts one day, a fake ID and alcohol connection the next day could change their peer's perception. Moving up and down the social ladder wasn't solely a function of risk taking, but it in many ways played a role.

So of course teenagers have a different risk/return tradeoff when it comes to risk taking behavior than adults do. If you choose not to drink as an adult, usually you don't risk social derision. If anything, it is the opposite.

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