What does the word “adolescent” conjure up in your mind? A grouchy, uncommunicative and smelly golem? A heady mix of CBA (can’t be arsed) nonchalance and WTF (what the fuck) fury? An overgrown child, or an underdeveloped adult? One who knows everything and isn’t budging, or one who can only blindly follow where others lead? A terrifying risk-taker or a terrified risk-avoider?
And is there any scientific basis for all this? Are they really a breed apart? Do they really drink, smoke, take drugs and have sex more than adults, and are they really worse at assessing risk?
Professor David Bainbridge, author of Teenagers: A Natural History, says that yes, adolescents do take more risks (at least more than children), but for a good reason – risk is vital for our species.
“If no one took any risks, you would never ask someone out and there would soon be no people left at all!” he says. “Adolescents need to create emotional distance between themselves and their parents. That often involves doing things the parents don’t like. And they’re also embroiled in complex relationships with their peers, creating social hierarchies that will live with them for the rest of their lives.”
A recent study suggests that adolescent mice are heavily influenced by their peers when it comes to risky behaviour in a way that adult mice aren’t. They drink more alcohol when they’re caged with their peers compared with the amount they drink on their own, whereas adult mice drink the same amount whether they are alone or in a group. This could be a hard-wired adaptation that is an advantage in evolutionary terms – young adult mammals are safer in groups than as lone operators, and since they’re the ones who are going to reproduce, the species needs them to survive.
So does this apply to humans as well as mice? Neuroscientist Dr Lisa Knoll thinks that it does. “Young adolescents seem to fear exclusion by their peers more than adults do,” she says. If your friends are taking risks, then you’re more likely to because you’ll want to conform.”
Dr Knoll’s team asked 560 people of all ages who visited the Science Museum to rank a series of potentially risky behaviours, such as crossing the street on a red light, cycling without a helmet and walking alone down a dark alley, from high to low risk. Then, they told the participants how other people of both the same age and other ages had judged the level of risk, and asked them if they wanted to amend their scores. Participants of all ages were influenced by others, but adults and children adjusted their ratings more to conform to the ratings of adults than teenagers. Only 12-14-year-olds gave more weight to the views of other teenagers than to adults.
It seems that social conformity exerts most pressure on younger adolescents, and by the age of 15, the peer-pressure effect begins to wear off.
Bainbridge says that we’re actually all poor at assessing modern-day risks. “Until 10,000 years ago, we were hunter-gatherers, and we were very good at assessing risks we faced then. But risks change very rapidly now. Take drugs; they’re much stronger than they were, but our brains can’t adapt as quickly to the changing levels of risk.”
The drive to take risks seems to increase after puberty. One reason for that may be that risky behaviours cause a surge in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Adults probably get the same kick from taking risks, but generally they manage to override their urges more successfully. So, under-25s are more likely to binge-drink, crash cars while drunk, get into fights, and have casual and unprotected sex. And because their brains are still developing, drugs such as cannabis and alcohol may be particularly damaging in the young. Adolescents’ actions impact on all age groups, so public health experts agree that reducing risk-taking by the young would improve everyone’s wellbeing.
But that’s easier said than done. Parenting that is warm but firm results in less risk-taking by adolescent children, but whether that is because the children are more self-regulating or just subject to more constraints isn’t clear. My own 17-year-old daughter, Emma, makes the valid point that kids need the freedom to test out boundaries while still in a safe environment. “The ones you need to worry about are the kids who leave home at 18 without any experience of life. Parents think they’re protecting their kids, but they’re actually putting them at greater risk once they leave the nest.”
So if risk-taking is an inherent, inevitable and perhaps desirable part of adolescence, how can the most dangerous excesses be curbed? The rise and rise of PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education in UK schools since 2000 may mean kids know a lot about sex, but it hasn’t led to a notable change in sexual behaviour. Raising the price of cigarettes, limiting alcohol sales and improving access to mental health and contraceptive service may prove to be the most effective strategies. And perhaps we need to reframe our approach; adolescence is a transition phase into adulthood. It can’t be rushed or suppressed. There is a creativity, experimentation, freedom from constraint and a degree of recklessness in those years that that fuels our later adult lives. Is there some regret and envy in the way we talk about adolescents once we’re over the hill?