Why Are Teenagers Playing It Safe?

New research explores recent trends in high-risk behaviour among teens.

Posted Sep 03, 2018

Adolescence is society's permission slip for combining physical maturity with psychological irresponsibility.  Terry Apter

What kind of risks did you take as a teenager?

It's become a basic truism that adolescence can be a time when we are far more likely to engage in different kinds of risky behaviour.  Since the teenage years often represent a "twilight stage" between childhood and adulthood, the desire to set aside childhood fears and try more adult activities can be hard to resist.  This can mean experimentation with drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, unsafe driving, and even brushes with the law at times. 

Certainly the negative stereotypes often associated with the teenage years go back a long way.   At the dawn of the 20th century, eminent psychologist G. Stanley Hall referred to adolescence as "the time when an individual recapitulates the savage stage of the race's past."   Later psychologists argued that teenagers are often extremely impulsive due to their relative lack of maturity and the kind of life experience that would make them avoid high-risk activities.   Neurobiologists have even argued that adolescents lack the neurological maturity needed to control their impulsiveness.

But it doesn't end there.  In recent years, some researchers have argued that the latest generation of young people (i.e., "kids these days") are much more narcissistic and lacking in empathy.  This supposedly makes them less disciplined, more selfish, and less focused on self-improvement, an opinion that seems to be shared by the general population.  As one example, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of American adults believed older adults to have better "moral values"  than young people do (young people being defined as "millennials" in the survey).  

Despite this constant bashing of young people though, the reality seems to be very different, at least in recent years.  Since 1990, surveys have shown that that  crime, substance use, and unprotected sex are all decreasing in recent years, at least in young Americans. And the overall decrease seems to apply to a wide range of risky behaviours traditionally linked to adolescence and young adulthood. In a recent article published in Archives of Scientific Psychology, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University provides an overview of risk behaviour in adolescents which seems downright encouraging for anyone despairing about the future.

In his article, Arnett used 1990 as the baseline year for his analysis, largely because it seems to be around that time that the turnaround in risky behaviour in adolescents began (adolescence being defined as the period from age 13 to 18).  Prior to that time, surveys showed risky behaviour rising steadily in adolescents over a 20-year period.  After 1990 however, things began to change for the better, at least in terms of  the four primary risk behaviours that Arnett examined:  substance abuse, unprotected sex, crime, and hazardous driving.

Though substance abuse in adolescents has long been seen as an epidemic, recent statistics seem much more encouraging.   According to annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) national surveys, alcohol and tobacco use has dropped sharply among young people since 1990.  As for other, more illegal drugs, use among young people has dropped to its lowest point in over 40 years.   The only exception to this trend appears to be marijuana which seems to be fluctuating from one year to the next.    

As for other high-risk behaviours, including unprotected sex, juvenile crime, and unsafe driving, they have also declined sharply since 1990.   Not only has the teen pregnancy rate plunged in most places (though there are exceptions), but condom use has gone up sharply as well.  There also seems to be fewer teenagers who are sexually active and, for those who are, basic precautions against pregnancy and venereal disease have become more popular. 

Despite fears concerning criminal behaviour in adolescents, the actual rates of violent and property offenses committed by juveniles have dropped by more than half over the past two decades.   Adolescent surveys also show that far fewer teenagers are carrying weapons, getting into physical fights, or being injured in a physical fight.   As for automobile fatalities resulting from teenagers behind the wheel, they have dropped sharply since 1990 as well.   Though this can be related to a general trend towards greater auto safety in all age groups, the decline in fatalities is greatest among 16 to 20-year-olds.

Interestingly enough, this overall trend towards safer behaviour occurring in adolescent doesn't appear to be shared by older adults.  Drug and alcohol abuse seems to be as much a problem as it ever was among 18 to 25 year olds.  Not only is binge drinking much more common among the over-18 group but the recent epidemic in opioid use seems to be bypassing teenagers entirely.   

Similar findings can be reported for crime rates, automobile fatalities, and other high-risk behaviours.  But  other countries in Europe don't seem to be showing these same declines however. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Alcohol Addiction, binge drinking among 15 and 16-year olds seems to be as high as it ever was across Europe with 35 percent of teenagers reporting a drinking binge in the past month while tobacco use has only decreased slightly in European teens.  While teen pregnancy, youth crime, and automobile fatalities have also dropped in recent years for Europe's teens, the United States continues to show the sharpest drop overall.

Which still leaves the question of why this drop in high-risk behaviours is occurring in American teens.  In his article, Arnett explored three possible theories:

  • that this decrease is due to the various public policies and government initiatives aimed at curbing problem behaviour such as substance use, youth crime, unprotected sex, and unsafe driving.   For example, the decrease in youth crime could be due to hiring more police officers and various "get-tough" policies while the drop in unprotected sex may be due to better sex education in schools, etc. Except that these are the same policies that were in place during the 1990s when high-risk behaviours were on the rise among teenagers.    For that matter, sex education for teens remains pitifully inadequate with access to contraception being routinely denied to teens in all but 18 U.S. states.  As for the drop in teen automobile fatalities, there has been no substantial change in driver education programs that can account for the recent decrease.
  • that "intensive parenting", i.e., parents being more involved with their children may be accounting for the safer behaviour among teens.  Again however, there is no evidence that parenting practices have changed substantially since 1990 to account for the drop in different kinds of high-risk behaviour among adolescents.   While research has demonstrated a strong relationship between parental monitoring and risky behaviour, the rise in single-parent families and dual-career couples over the past thirty years would argue for adolescents being far more independent today than they once were.   
  • that the advent of digital communication devices, Internet gaming, and social media may be playing a role in this new safety trend.  In 1990, the Internet was in its infancy and such innovations as smartphones, tablets, and social media platforms were non-existent.  Today however, they are everywhere and have profoundly shaped the way that young people interact with the world.   According to a 2017 national survey, 13 to 18-year-olds spent nine hours or more a day online. Though it's hard to be sure why this would lead to safer behaviour in general, media researchers have suggested that this expanded online activity may be "displacing" the time and energy spent on other activities.  While professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association have expressed concern about the impact of media violence on adolescents, the actual research doesn't seem to bear this out.    As for whether media use promotes other kinds of risk behaviour, the trends outlined in this article suggest the exact opposite.   

So, why would increased media use be promoting  safer behaviour in adolescents?   Arnett suggests that the shift towards more "virtual" social activities may be reducing the time spent on the kind of in-person social activities that might be harmful.   Since much of the high-risk behaviour studied in this article is social in nature (including substance use, adolescent crime, unsafe driving, and unsafe sex), this shift towards virtual socializing can affect the risks many adolescents take. 

This has been borne out by a recent study suggesting that the drop in alcohol use and delinquency among teenagers since 1991 seems to be linked to the drop in unstructured socializing (riding around for fun, spending time with friends, etc.).  Young people aged 15 to 24 have also been found to spend 15 percent less time socializing on weekends in 2016 than they did ten years previously, something that seems clearly linked to the rising amount of time they spend online.    Though older age groups have also been affected by the digital revolution, it is young people who seem to have been affected the most.

Still, that hardly means that online activity is harmless.  Along with this drop in high-risk behaviour, there has also been a sharp rise in cyberbullying as well as online activities such as pornography use, sexting, and emotional problems resulting from social rejection.   Ironically, for all the research suggesting that adolescents are avoiding high-risk behaviours, other studies suggest that their emotional well-being has decreased as well.   Much more research is needed to explore the impact of digital devices on young people and what this may mean for their future social development. 

So, is it a good thing or not that young people today seem to be playing it safer?  You be the judge.


Arnett, J. J. (2018). Getting better all the time: Trends in risk behavior among American adolescents since 1990. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6(1), 87-95.

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