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Real-world findings suggest adolescents do engage in more risky behaviors than children and adults. (File Photo) Credit: Arthur Xu

In a new study, researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center are challenging the idea that adolescents naturally take more risks than children and adults. 

Popular neuroscience theories suggest teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors  because delayed brain development leads to poor impulse control. However, new research from Annenberg Public Policy Center postdoctoral fellow Ivy Defoe and Research Director Dan Romer goes against these models, instead suggesting that adolescents take more risks because of environmental factors that are part of a normal process of adapting to adulthood. 

“If adolescents are doing more dangerous things in the real world, it’s not because they are intrinsically more risk-taking than children,” Romer told Annenberg Public Policy Center. “The question is, what would account for the real-world difference?”

By studying past laboratory experiments measuring risk-taking behavior in different age groups, the reviewers discovered that children and adolescents are equally likely to make risky decisions. In fact, when given the option of a safe alternative, adolescents are more likely to choose the alternative than children. The researchers also found younger adolescents aged 11-13 took more risks than older adolescents aged 14-19. 

In contrast to the laboratory results, real-world findings suggest adolescents do engage in more risky behaviors than children and adults. Defoe and Romer claimed that this discrepancy comes from environmental rather than biological factors. Outside the laboratory setting, opportunities to engage in risk-taking behavior increase with age: adolescents are supervised less than younger children, and they are exposed to potentially risky conditions such as access to alcohol and the ability to drive a car. While adults have the same risk opportunities as adolescents, the researchers suggested adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors because they are drawn to new experiences. 

The study was published on March 8 in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Defoe and Romer worked with Judith Semon Dubas, a psychology professor from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.