RISK-TAKING

By Dr Jennifer Marino

Co-author: Professor Rachel Skinner

  • The term ‘risk-taking’ refers to risky behaviour in areas including drug, alcohol and tobacco use, sexual activity and driving.
  • Exploration and experimentation through risk-taking are an essential part of teenage development, and help teenagers to become independent adults.
  • Most teenagers do not experience lasting negative outcomes as a result of taking risks. However, for some  teenagers, risk-taking is a major contributor to illness, injury, social harms and even death.

WHAT WE KNOW

Risk-taking is a normal part of teenage development. To achieve adult independence, teenagers must pursue new experiences and learn by experimentation. They must also take some social risks in order to develop the social competence they need as adults. Risky behaviours tend to cluster, meaning that teenagers typically engage in more than one area of risk-taking at a time. 

For most people, the risk-taking of the Teenage Decade doesn’t result in any long-lasting negative impacts. However, when we look at teenage illness, injury, social harm and even death, risk-taking emerges as a major contributor. For example, road accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults in Australia. Suicide, also associated with risky behaviour, accounts for over a third of deaths among young people aged 15 to 24 years.

WHY IT MATTERS

  • In our communities, and in the health system in particular, we tend to stigmatise teenage risk-taking as a ‘failing’ or a sign of poor character, rather than acknowledging it as an essential and valuable part of teenage development. We overlook the strengths that can be gained from risk-taking, paying very little attention to how we support teenagers to take positive risks, and how we help them prevent or mitigate the impact of harmful risk-taking.
  • Addressing health issues in the teenage years can prevent harmful patterns of behaviour from becoming entrenched and lay the foundations for resilience, coping strategies and wellbeing in adulthood. The fact that teenagers experience significant physical and cognitive change in the Teenage Decade, and won’t reach cognitive maturity until their mid-20s, makes timely health interventions all the more valuable and, ultimately, cost-effective.

 

WHAT WE’RE ASKING

Australia has some of the richest long-term studies of youth development in the world, with measures of risk-taking and a broad range of health and social outcomes. WH&Y will use those data resources to understand what’s really happening when young people take risks. We will be asking:

  • What are the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to take risks?
  • What markers distinguish young people who are the most vulnerable to harm from the majority of teenagers?
  • What factors place and keep this vulnerable minority on destructive pathways?
  • What resources and assets can we use to divert the vulnerable minority to healthy outcomes?

  • What are the broader societal benefits and burdens of adolescent risk-taking?
Dr Jennifer Marino

Dr Jennifer Marino is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at th...