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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bulletproof : The Risk-Taking Teen

I was in a seminar recently and the group discussion centered upon why teenagers take risks and experiment with drugs. You know, the kind of precociousness that can lead to early substance abuse. Marker ink was soon filling up the flip charts as the brainstorming got intense.

Although never a dabbler in the drug scene (Alcohol doesn't count, right?), I had thrived on plenty of other risky behaviors as a teen. I had something to add, so I raised my hand and searched for appropriate words to describe feelings and behaviors I could still vividly recall from decades past when piss and vinegar drove many of my actions. I wanted to share this with the scholarly group.

I said, "As a teenager, I wanted to have adventures every weekend, the kind that brought me close to the edges of forbidden territory - road trips, drinking soirees, concert and dance experiences, hopeful sexual flirtations, back-road parties, involvement in all kinds of pranks and tricks, and scary midnight mysteries bordering on raunchy stupidity."

Many of the people at the seminar pretty much passed my comments over, probably choosing to ignore them as the ramblings of a once-rebellious, wanton soul. After all, admitting to my teen desires for dangerous activities requiring sex, risk, and rock'n'roll didn't seem to fit the more nondescript lists that read "loneliness, peer pressure, and increasing student responsibilities."

But, I hold my ground in the belief 
that the adrenaline/testosterone-driven needs
for peril and novel adventures 
create situations that make drug experimentation 
(yes, including alcohol consumption) 
attractive to 21st century teens. 

When I was sixteen, my own teenage fumblings and inexperienced direct assaults toward ecstasy fed my early fantasies and fueled my further quests for ever-hotter realities. Fast cars, dangerous girls, 3.2% beer, rock music, dark nights, and the need to race my internal motor ever higher "just for kicks" made teenage camaraderie FUN and even USEFUL. My daily dopamine fixes were "rewards" for finding new adventure: they felt good, strong, and RIGHT.

Now, getting back to the seminar experience, 
I must confess I don't know the answer to this question: 
"What safe, structured, drug-free, alternative activities 
could fulfill a teen's desire for peril and genuine adventure?" 

This question seems contradictory in nature -- safe with peril and structured with genuine. It seems to me that most answers -- be they sporting activities or perilous simulations -- deflate much of the air from the balloon of acquired social impact and real experience. After all, don't we commonly associate fear, fun, romance, and "hanging out" with spontaneity and whimsy?

Damn it, I want the kids to have fun 
as they have a gradual transformation 
from innocence to experience. 
I just don't want them to step over the line of reason into dangerous,
life-threatening, drug fueled, often criminal and destructive behaviors.

But what may be at work here is a crucial gap between what young people rationally know and what knowledge they use in making decisions—a gap that fills in gradually as they learn more from the outcome of each decision.

Risk taking in itself is normal and even necessary for learning to live in the world, 
but it becomes a problem when carried out in excess, 
or when it persists in the face of clear warnings about significant, needless danger.

This is one reason that practice with risk-carrying situations, especially talking them over beforehand with people an adolescent trusts, can be very helpful. Forethought and discussion also put decisions into better context, enabling a teenager to take into account the thoughts of people close to them but detached from the immediate situation. 

The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, which surveyed more than 12,000 high school students throughout the country, has noted that feelings of “connectedness” (feeling close to people at school, fairly treated by teachers, and loved and wanted at home) helped significantly to lower an individual’s likelihood of emotional distress, early sexual activity, substance abuse, violence, and suicide.

Alarmed by the rising toll of accidents and violence among teenagers, the Federal Government and private foundations have embarked on a major new program of research on why teenagers take so many foolish risks - and how such dangerous behavior can be curbed.

From acrobatics on skateboards to sex without contraceptives, teenagers are notoriously reckless. Research suggests a combination of hormonal factors, an inability to perceive risks accurately and the need to impress peers help explain this. All of these influences seem to peak in the years between 10 and the mid-20's.

Driving the new research effort is a chilling fact: adolescents are the only age group in which mortality has risen since 1960. Three-quarters of adolescent deaths are caused by accidents, homicide and suicide, all of which indicate a lethal propensity for risk-taking. Accidents alone account for 60 percent of those deaths. PLEASE NOTE: STATS TAKEN FROM ARTICLE DATED 1987)

''The three biggest killers of young people are essentially psychological,'' 
said Lewis Lipsitt, a developmental psychologist at Brown University. 
''They are dying of their own reckless behavior.''

Dr. Lipsitt organized a meeting of scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health to draw up a research agenda on risk-taking by teenagers and what to do about it. The meetings are part of efforts by the Government and foundations to identify teenagers most likely to take dangerous risks and to find ways to head off the peril. (Daniel Goleman, "Teen-Age Risk-Taking: Rise In Deaths Prompts New Research Effort," The New York Times, November 24 1987)  Read the article here:

Teens and Traits: Most Likely To Take Dangerous Risks

1. One of the major deficits in the thinking of teenagers, particularly in early adolescence, is in evaluating the probabilities of a risk - luck vs. reality.

''Often, if a teenager does something several times - like not breaking his neck when he does something stupid, or not getting pregnant after sex without contraceptives - he will assume it becomes less risky each time, not more so,'' Dr. Hamburg said.

2. Teenagers are also prone to exaggeration. 

Dr. Hamburg said, ''Adolescents tend to grossly over- or underestimate based on their immediate experience. When they say, 'Everyone's doing it - why shouldn't I?' they wildly overestimate the actual numbers. And, by the same token, they wildly underestimate the safety of the dangerous things they do.''

3. What seems a clear danger in the eyes of an adult, may seem safe, or safe enough, to the teenager. 

Dr. Lipsitt and other researchers say teenagers can seem to live in an orbit all their own, in which the reasonable imperatives of the adult world have little, if any, relevance.

4. The ability to evaluate risk seems to be skewed in many teenagers. 

For instance, when they were asked to anticipate what risks become more or less dangerous over time, they saw addiction from drug use and pregnancy from unprotected intercourse as becoming less rather than more likely, according to Charles Irwin, a pediatrician at the University of California at San Francisco.

5. Perception of some risks may fade in the face of peer pressure. 

For example, when it comes to using condoms, the major concerns of adolescents are not the risks of pregnancy, but rather such matters as whether they think their peers use condoms and whether condoms are inconvenient or might make them look ''silly,'' according to Nancy Adler, a health psychologist at the University of California at San Francsico, and a colleague of Dr. Irwin.

6. So-called "bad girls" had already started smoking and experimenting with drugs and were exposed to other risks - such as riding in cars going too fast - far more than other girls their age. 

Dr. Adler said that the risks that these ''bad girls'' took included drinking, fighting, hitchhiking, arguing with strangers, seeking entertainment in high-crime areas and carrying a knife.

A hallmark of the most reckless girls, Dr. Adler found, was their intent to become sexually active in the next year. This intention was far less common among girls who engaged in few risky behaviors.

7. So-called "macho boys" in the same age group, a cluster of activities set the most risk-prone youths apart from their peers, but no single marker emerged. 

The activities included drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, riding on motorcycles and getting knocked unconscious.

8. Biology, too, seems to push some adolescents to take more risks than others,

According to studies of sensation-seeking by Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, sensation-seeking is a personality trait that includes the desire for thrills and adventure, the enjoyment of physically risky activities and the need for sensory and social stimulation such as loud music or parties.

According to Dr. Zuckerman, there is a direct relationship between how people score on a personality test for sensation-seeking and how fast they say they drive on an open highway. People who have the lowest sensation-seeking scores drive, on average, at 55 miles an hour. As the scores rise, so does the average driving speed; in the highest range it is over 75 miles an hour.

9. Another biological factor in sensation-seeking may be monoamine oxidase, or MAO, an enzyme that regulates levels of some brain chemicals such as serotonin, which regulates mood. 

People with low levels of MAO can have very high or very low levels of serotonin, among other chemicals.

Sensation-seekers tend to have low levels of MAO, according to research by Dr. Monte Buchsbaum, a psychologist at the Univeristy of California at Irvine. People with low MAO levels, Dr. Buchsbaum found, tend to smoke and drink more than others and are more likely to have a criminal record. Although MAO levels have not been tested in younger teenagers, Dr. Buchsbaum found that among those he tested the lowest levels were in college-age people and that levels tended to rise with age.
''People in their late teens are at double biological risk, because of the combination of high hormone and low MAO levels,'' Dr. Zuckerman said.

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