Rebels with a cause? Smart risk taking by teens may be the key to success in adulthood

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8 2013 6:45 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Eighteen-year-old Alex Doxey steps onto the ledge of a 5-foot wall in the foothills of Salt Lake City, Utah, gauging the distance he must jump to avoid landing on the cement below.

He presses his sweaty palms against his bright red T-shirt and hurls into a front flip. His friends shout praises from above, but then the searing pain shooting through his body indicates that he has landed wrong.

Parents have long wondered why teenagers are such impulsive, temperamental sensation seekers. But experts indicate that those same exasperating traits may be necessary to success later in life. As a parent, knowing what risks are appropriate and how to point teens in the right direction can be pivotal.

Though his recovery from injured vertebrae took several months, Doxey — now a soon-to-be father himself — doesn't regret the risks he took as a teenager.

"My parents and the experiences they allowed me to have played a key role in teaching me how to safely take risks, and then how to deal with both the failure and triumph that accompany risks," Doxey said. "Life is risky, but learning how to deal with those risks provides incredible confidence."

Measuring the costs

Teens are notorious for their love of the thrill. This age group consumes more alcoholic drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that teenagers are three times more likely than adults to get into motor vehicle accidents.

While risky behavior seems to display a lack of judgment and a general disregard for consequences, experts say this may not be the case.

Teens actually overestimate risk, says Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University. In a study conducted by Reyna, adolescents estimated that a sexually active teenage girl has a 60 percent chance of being infected with HIV, while Americans actually contract HIV at a comparatively minuscule rate.

"Sensation seeking is an adaptive mechanism," said Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry who uses neuroimaging to study the teen brain. "What we found is that teens are actually really good at measuring the costs, but perceive rewards differently."

Luna scanned the brains of teens, children and twenty-somethings who were instructed to look in the opposite direction of a flickering screen, requiring them to override the urge to seek new information and follow a prohibition, at the cost of curiosity.

Children failed about 45 percent of the time. While teens scored higher, they tended to make less use of brain regions that adults acted upon automatically: keeping focus, locating errors and observing performance. They were more apt to act on impulse.

When offered a reward, however, teens were able to utilize those same brain regions. In fact, by age 15 they could score as well as adults, resisting temptation about 70 to 80 percent of the time.

"Given the motivation, they could drive the brain to full-throttle," Luna said.

The brain scans help explain that teens are motivated to act in socially acceptable ways, allowing them to create a network of peers beyond family, Luna said. "Risks are the means by which teens gain skills that allow them to act independently from teachers and parents and coaches, a step into adulthood."

An adaptive mechanism

While sensation-seeking can prompt dangerous behaviors, researchers are beginning to understand that risk-taking may constitute an important developmental process. When taking risks, teens' brains may actually be developing traits essential to success later in life, experts find.

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