If you read the local news section of a newspaper, you are bound to come across the story of a tragic death or injury to a teen.  They might be texting, drinking and driving, or skateboarding in a precarious spot.  Reading these stories may reinforce a general belief that teens simply take too many risks.

So, are teens really bigger risk-takers than adults?

A fascinating paper by Erik de Water, Antonius Cillessen, and Anouk Scheres in the October, 2014 issue of Child Development examines this question.

A lot of the behaviors in teens that we think of as risky are really impulsive.  Being impulsive means doing something that feels good right now rather than waiting in order to do something even better in the future. 

There are two parts to impulsivity.

The first is risk.  When you are impulsive, you might choose to do riskier things now without thinking through the long-term consequences.

The second is value.  If you value things in the present more than things in the future, then you may choose to get things right now.  Everyone values the present more than the future to some degree.  I would rather get $10 right now than to get $10 in a week.  But, how much more would I need to get in a week in order to forego $10 right now.  I might still prefer $10 now to $10.01 in a week.  But, perhaps I would take $12 next week rather than $10 today. 

These researchers tested teens ranging in age from 12-17 and young adults ranging in age from 18-27.  All participants were given a test of risk and a test of value.  They were also given a test of fluid intelligence (the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test) and a test of how much they value different amounts of money right now. 

The test they used to measure risk was a simple gambling task.  Participants saw a pie cut into 6 pieces, where 4 pieces were in one color and 2 were in the other.  This pie represented a gamble in which there was a 2/3 chance of winning one prize and a 1/3 chance of winning the other.  The prizes were set up so that the prize with the higher probability was always half the size of the prize with the lower probability.  So, a gamble might offer a 2/3 chance of winning $4 and a 1/3 chance of winning $8.  The more often someone selects the low probability gamble, the more risk they are taking.

The test for value involved having people make a series of decisions about whether they would prefer a particular amount of money right now or a larger amount of money some time in the future.  The time period ranged from 2 days to a year. 

The results suggested that teens were not riskier than adults, but they did value the present more than the adults did.  That is, both adults and teens selected the riskier gamble at about the same rate.  However, compared to the adults, teens needed more money in the future to be willing to delay getting money now rather than money later.  Other measures in this study examined how much teens value particular amounts of money.  Teens definitely find small amounts of money to be more valuable than adults.  But, even taking that difference into account, teens still valued money in the present more than money in the future.

What does this mean?

We tend to think of teens as taking more risks than adults.  But, findings like this suggest that teens are more impulsive not because they are willing to take more risks, but because they value the present so highly.  The difficult thing for teens is to recognize that future experiences may be more valuable than their options in the moment. 

It is important to tease apart these factors, because it influences the kinds of information we want to give to teens to help them take a long-term perspective on life events.  If teens were big risk takers, then we might want to educate them better about the risks associated with behaviors.

But, because teens value the present so strongly, it is important to help them see the value of the future.  One reason for the viral success of the “It Gets Better” videos is that it aimed to help LGBT teens to see that the problems that they face now are not as big as they seem and that the future holds valuable things in store.  This strategy is one that can be generally effective in helping teens to delay impulsive behavior right now in favor of the long term.

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