Teens know risks

they choose to ignore them

November 19, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

IT TURNS OUT, WE'RE WRONG.

Parents believe that their kids do dangerous things -- like driving drunk or having unprotected sex -- because they don't understand the risks and because they believe they are invulnerable.

Parents think if we just show them the crumpled car, the pregnant classmate, the girl in the prom dress in the coffin, kids will understand that the risks they face are real.

If we show them that it has happened to a friend, perhaps they will understand it can happen to them.

Wrong.

That's not the way kids think at all.

In fact, teens believe they are more in danger than they actually are.

And they are certain that if something bad can happen to them, it will.

These are the conclusions of Valerie Reyna of Cornell University and Frank Farley of Temple University, who evaluated 300 studies on adolescent risk-taking and reported their findings in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a professional journal.

Parents and educators have believed since the 1960s that all you had to do to convince teens to behave safely is to demonstrate the bad things that can happen to them if they don't, and how likely those things are to happen.

But the fact is, Reyna and Farley report, adolescents already have an outsized sense of their own vulnerability and an exaggerated sense of the risks they face.

Then what are kids thinking when they take these risks anyway?

That the risks are high, but the consequences aren't all that bad. And that the immediate benefits outweigh those future risks.

"This myth of invulnerability -- that the reason they take risks is that they think they are immortal -- has been a commonly held view since the 1960s, but it wasn't tested," Cornell's Reyna said in a telephone interview.

"People just assumed it was true. It seemed to explain the behavior. I mean, why else would you do something stupid or dangerous?"

But as early as 1993, a study reported that kids perceived themselves to be at greater risk than their parents. Reyna and Farley connected the dots in this and much more research.

They found that kids misperceive the social norm -- for example, kids believe more peers are having sex than actually are.

And it is not that our teens don't believe they will get pregnant -- they actually believe they are more likely to. It is that the short-term benefit (pleasure and the esteem of peers) outweighs a possible downside down the road (an STD or a baby).

OK. If scaring our teens straight isn't going to work, what will?

Since their research was first reported in The Wall Street Journal this month, Reyna has fielded plenty of questions like this from worried parents and educators.

In their research, the authors recommend teaching kids to work from their gut, to foster in them an instinctive aversion to dangerous choices because that's the time frame -- seconds -- in which teens most often make decisions.

But do teens have enough life experience -- or enough frontal lobe brainpower -- to make the kinds of decisions adults make, literally, without thinking?

"We are testing that hypothesis now," said Reyna.

In the meantime, she advises closer supervision of young teens and providing lots of good decision-making role models for older teens.

"Younger adolescents are just impulsive," she said. "They are reacting rather than thinking. Monitoring and supervision is the best answer."

In other words, don't leave them alone with their poor decision-making and their poor decision-making friends.

As teens grow up, "risk preference goes steadily down until you find that young adults think completely differently than teenagers."

With maturity, they can read people and situations more quickly and more reliably. Until that kicks in, parents should provide a solid foundation of what they believe to be right and wrong, safe or dangerous.

Because we were wrong.

Kids don't think they are invulnerable. They think they are doomed.

We need to help them believe that the opposite is true. That they have the power to avoid mistakes and trouble.

That they can be smart and successful.

"That there is hope," said Reyna.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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