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Adolescents Are Comfortable With the Unknown in Risk-Taking

Parents worry about how to keep their teenagers safe. They wonder how to help their child understand the dangers of speeding, the impact of an unplanned pregnancy or the injury that could accompany underage drinking.

A new study says that the key to helping adolescents avoid risky behavior is to explicitly describe the risks. The study finds that despite general belief that teens just enjoy dangerous behavior, there may be more involved in their willingness to participate in risky behavior.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, finds that adolescents may take risks because they may be more comfortable than adults or younger children with unknown consequences.

While it has long been known that teens take more risks compared with the general population, the reasons behind it have been unclear. Teens do, however, take significantly more risks than their younger and older counterparts. For instance, criminal and risky sexual behaviors are the highest among this group, as well as having higher driving speeds when compared with adults.

In the study, the researchers note that the injury and death rate for teens is 200 percent higher than that of younger children.

The researchers examined the risk-taking among adolescents by having them make choices that involved both known and unknown risks. Their choices were compared with those of mid-life adults.

The participants, 65 of them, spanned several decades, from age 12 to 50, and were asked to make financial decisions within a lottery game. Each decision had a different degree of risk attached to the choices.

For some exercises, the participants were given the exact chances of winning. In other exercises, they weren’t given any information about the likelihood of winning, making their risk ambiguous.

The study was led by Ifat Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale. Levy and her team discovered that as soon as the risks were plainly explained, the adolescents avoided the risk equally or more than the adults in the study.

However, adolescents were found to be more at ease with ambiguous risk situations when compared with adults. Levy explains that this finding lines up with biological explanations of behavior. She says that young people tend to be more open to the unfamiliar because biologically they are still trying to acquire information about the world around them.

Levy stresses that it may benefit young people to talk explicitly about the risks as well as the benefits of any behavior. Teens do not lack the cognitive functions to understand the risk associated with behaviors. An adult that can provide specific risk information to a teen may help them reduce dangerous choices.

The findings of the study are published in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

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