Teens engaging in risky behavior is nothing new. Teens have a reputation for being wild. And, like most stereotypes, there’s truth in that image. Psychological and physiological changes in the adolescent body and brain contribute to risk-taking behavior.
Glorified by the media in numerous novels and films (remember Risky Business?), teen risky behavior isn’t entertaining in real life—it’s scary. According to the Centers for Disease Control, accidents, homicide, and suicide are the top three causes of death for teenagers in America. And all three can stem from risky behavior.
The Top Five Teen Risky Behaviors
What exactly does teen risk behavior look like? There’s a wide range of behavior patterns that can be classified as risky. In general, however, risky behavior in teens can be broken down into roughly five categories.
- Behavior that may lead to violence or injury: This category includes being in a fight, bullying or being bullied, carrying a weapon, self-harm, and considering or attempting suicide.
- Unsafe sexual behavior: This category includes having intercourse before the age of 13, not using protection during intercourse, not being tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. It also includes drinking alcohol or using drugs during or before intercourse.
- Alcohol, substance, and tobacco use: This category includes drinking alcohol in any amount, binge drinking, and using prescription or illegal drugs, as well as smoking cigarettes or using chewing tobacco.
- Unsafe driving or riding: This category includes driving while texting or e-mailing, driving after drinking or using drugs, or not wearing a seatbelt. Furthermore, it includes riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking or using drugs. It also includes riding a bike after drinking or using drugs, and riding a bike without a helmet.
- Poor self-care: This category includes unhealthy eating, not sleeping enough, inadequate physical activity, and excessive social media and screen time.
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor risky behavior in teenagers using the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Conducted every other year since 1991, the YRBSS now covers 118 health behaviors, as well as statistics on obesity and asthma. The 2015 YRBSS, the most recent study, collected data about risky behavior from more than 15,000 American high school students.
A Sampling of Data from the 2015 Risk Behavior Surveillance Report
- 41.5 percent of high school drivers texted or e-mailed while driving in the 30 days before the survey.
- In those same 30 days, 20 percent of high school students rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking.
- 10.8 percent of high school students had smoked cigarettes in the 30 days before the survey.
- 43.1 percent of sexually active high school students had not used a condom, and 13.8 percent had used no pregnancy prevention method at all.
- 81.4 percent of students who rode a bike in the year prior to the survey rarely or never used a bicycle helmet.
- 22.6 percent of students had been in a physical fight at least once during the year prior to the survey.
- 17.7 percent of students had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey.
- 27.3 percent of students got eight or more hours of sleep on an average school night.
- 17 percent of students had taken prescription drugs without a prescription.
Why Teens Take Risks
When it comes to risky behavior, adolescence is the perfect storm. There are many reasons why teens are drawn to risk-taking behaviors. In addition, peer pressure can be a factor. External stresses can push teens toward these behaviors to let off steam. Therefore, taking risks can be a misguided way for teens to strike out on their own and feel independent.
But teenage risky behavior is also a result of physiological changes that impact the brain and the nervous system. In an essay on teen risk behaviors written for Slate magazine, Alan E. Kazdin, former president of the American Psychological Association, and Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, put it like this:
About the time of the onset of puberty, changes in brain structure and function, hormones, and neurotransmitters work together to increase the desire to seek out rewarding experiences, especially the sensation afforded by novel and risky behavior.
Risky Behavior and the Teenage Brain
According to Kazdin and Rotella, as an adolescent’s social-emotional system matures, they seek out more stimulation. But the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-regulation, is not yet developed enough in teens to exert control over their impulses. Consequently, this leads to teenage risk behaviors.
Researchers theorize that teenagers may actually be biologically hard-wired to engage in risky behaviors. In a study at the University of Texas at Austin, participants aged eight to 30 were given monetary rewards for correctly categorizing an image. Scientists measured how their brains responded when they found out whether their answers were right or wrong. The teenagers’ brains released the highest levels of dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure. Dopamine motivates the brain to seek rewards and is linked to addiction. Thus, the researchers concluded that teens are more willing to take risks in order to experience rewards.
How Teens Make Decisions
According to the authors of the study, “Adolescents tend to make poor decisions and risky choices more often than both children (who are not yet fully sensitive to rewards) and adults (who are sensitive to rewards, but have the ability to exert control over reward-driven urges).”
Another study looked at how participants aged 18 to 88 reacted to a lottery game. In general, the older they were, the fewer risks they took. Additionally, researchers found that the older adults who were risk averse had less gray matter than younger participants in the area of the brain involved in decisions that entail risk.
Is Teen Risky Behavior Contagious?
Peer relationships are incredibly important for teens. As a result, their intense focus on how their peers see them can cause them to do risky things. Furthermore, there is a scientific basis for the idea that risky behavior is more common in groups.
In a 2016 study on risky behavior, participants were asked to take a chance or make a safer choice in a gambling game. When they weren’t watching the others who were playing the game, most people selected the safer bet. But when they observed risky behavior in others, they were more likely to take risks themselves. It’s easy to see how these findings could translate to teenagers.
Substance Abuse and Teen Risk-Taking
Alcohol and substance use create a double risk. Not only are they risky behaviors in themselves, they also increase the likelihood that teens will engage in other dangerous activities. The teen brain is already compromised in terms of its executive-functioning ability (the ability to make and carry out rational decisions). Alcohol and drug use further weaken that ability, no matter what age you are.
Researchers at Rutgers gathered data on 91 young adults between the ages of 18 and 20. They used a visual and task-based test to measure the impact of drinking on executive functioning among students consuming alcohol in real situations. The higher their blood alcohol level, the worse decisions the students made on the test. The study authors concluded that chronic alcohol consumption has a significant impact on the executive functioning processes of the brain among underage drinkers. Consequently, it increases the likelihood that they will make risky choices.
This is borne out by statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showing that drinking leads to other health–compromising behaviors, such as tobacco use and drinking and driving.
Teen Risk Behaviors, Anxiety, and Depression
While the prefrontal cortex is not yet developed in the adolescent brain, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing fear, is overactive. Thus, “adolescents are not just carefree novelty seekers and risk takers; they are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety and have a hard time learning to be unafraid of passing dangers,” writes Richard A. Freedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry, in an article in the New York Times. “Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.” Clearly, this characteristic doesn’t mesh well with risk-taking behaviors.
Teens and Maladaptive Behaviors
For adolescents who suffer from teen depression, risk-taking behaviors might ease the pain or numbness. These may include substance abuse, unsafe sexual activity, or self-harm. But, in fact, these behaviors always make depression symptoms worse. In addition, there are other behaviors classified as risky. These include eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, and spending too much time on social media. These habits also contribute to mental health challenges.
Positive Risk-Taking: Finding Healthy Challenges
Risk-taking isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, a certain level of safe, positive risk-taking is essential for teens to develop their sense of self and gain self-esteem. Healthy risk-taking activities include the following:
- Playing sports
- Outdoor adventures
- Performing on stage
- Volunteering in an unknown situation
- Reaching out to make new friends.
Tests and trials are a necessary part of life. You have to be tested through struggles and eventually overcome them, or you will never grow into your own power. Every time you are tested by a hardship or problem, it forces you to go within and find your own personal strength, skill, or solution that is uniquely yours.
—Crit Callebs, mentor and therapeutic facilitator at Newport Academy
Six Ways Parents Can Limit Risky Behavior in Teens
Parents sometimes feel helpless when it comes to combating their teenager’s risk-taking behaviors. But there are ways to limit the dangers, while still respecting an adolescent’s independence.
- Know where your teen is. Remember those public service announcements from the 1970s asking, “Do you know where your children are?” You should. Make sure your teen keeps you informed of their whereabouts. This doesn’t mean you’re a helicopter parent. It means you’re responsible.
- Communicate with your teen. Listen, ask questions, and don’t judge. However, don’t be afraid to set limits. It’s important to communicate about reckless behavior. Tell your teen that you understand that they might not be able to focus on the consequences of their behavior. Hence, that’s your job right now.
- Welcome their friends into your home. Make sure your teen knows that it’s okay to bring home friends. Provide a safe, comfortable space. This will lessen the possibility of risky behavior. But don’t confuse that with allowing teens to party in your home. This is both unsafe and illegal.
- Be a good example. Model what it looks like to drive carefully, drink responsibly, and make wise choices.
- Start encouraging healthy habits and hobbies early. Begin setting routines around nutritious eating and good sleep hygiene when your child is young. You can also nurture positive outlets early on, such as playing an instrument, physical exercise, or journal writing.
- Ask for professional help when you need to. Sometimes expert assistance is necessary to combat teen risk behaviors. If the problem isn’t getting better and you are concerned about your child’s safety, seek professional help . Don’t risk your teen’s life.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to professional support in the fields of teenage mental health and substance use. You are not alone.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Nat Neurosci. 2010 Jun; 13(6): 669–671.
Nature Communications, 13822 (2016).
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Apr 5; 113(14): 3755–3760.