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Risk In Teenagers – Why Do They Take Work, Driving And Life Risks? Explanations Here

Risk In Teenagers – Why Do They Take Work, Driving And Life Risks?  Explanations Here

TO KEEP Generation Y’ers, employers must keep them safe and healthy at work as well as provide for work/life balance, and fun. This is a snapshot statement of how the present young generation think, generally. This has emanated from Gen Y’s negative observations of how their baby boomer and Gen X parents suffered with job insecurity, dismissal, stress and high job dissatisfaction.

Adolescence is arguably the toughest time of life. Getting used to becoming adult is usually a painful transition. Have you ever wondered why teens think and act the way they do? Why they have such a propensity for risk-taking, for instance. Some of the latest research is finding there are tangible, scientific reasons for this. There are answers coming to some of these questions through the field of psychology with focus on brain development through this part of the lifespan.

This article seeks to uncover and de-mystify the issues of brain development of adolescents, so adult members of society (and parents) can at least understand and cater for these issues, providing young people the dignity and respect due them, and making the transition into adulthood as pain-free as possible. What follows this short article are a series of summarised points from research-backed psychological science as at 2006. (Source: Glendon, pp. 137-150, with full reference details at end.)

Remarks and Findings

Adolescents are usually better suited to late night shift work than mature adults, but are not so well suited to hazardous occupations where risk avoidance is essential as they can try to “reason” through the risk and can inadvertently be “bitten” by the hazard, in the process. The “higher road” of thinking is not well developed in adolescents so why do we expect them to reason, and analyse details well? They simply do not perceive and handle risks well. Careful, mature and sensitive supervision is critical.

Teens are often frustrated when required to make decisions based on odds or risk, and tend to do “things” anyway. Adolescents require quality, close supervision and mentoring for specialised tasks. If this is not forthcoming, they will have accidents and injuries.

Hormonal changes account for most of the brain development problems and must be managed, even into the mid- to late-twenties. Gender differences are marked-girls are between 4-6 years ahead of boys until the late 20s. This fact presents a myriad of relational problems between the sexes.

Novelty seeking, sensation seeking and risk-taking behaviours in teens can all be explained by the way the brain develops-it is not just about personal choice.

As far as driving is concerned, it is important to discourage young drivers from driving with more than one or two peers in the car at a time. With every extra adolescent passenger the risk of a crash is increased. Young male drivers’ risks for crashing whilst taking sweeping bends are higher than all other age and gender groups. Parents are critical role models for their teenagers in regard to driving behaviour-particularly the same-gender parent. If a father behaves inappropriately on the road, the teen son is likely to repeat it. It is the same for mothers and daughters.

In the working context, we mustn’t give adolescents more than one thing do at a time; for most, complex work routines and procedures are a set-up for failure. More mature workers tend to set the tone for workplace culture and adolescents often simply conform to that culture. No matter how good the safety systems are, if the culture allows for adolescents to take risks, they will take them.

It is easy to discount young people as being “careless and carefree,” the truth is they can’t do much about how they’re “wired,” and the development curve they’re on. The fact that they can’t employ effective thinking and decision-making regarding risk as well as adults needs to be sensitively addressed, because most teens are characteristically independent; they want to be treated as adults. As adults we should do as much as we reasonably can to keep them safe during the intermediary years, whilst respecting them in ways that shows value for their ever-increasing capacity to relate as an adult.

© Steve J. Wickham, 2008. All rights reserved Worldwide.


Bullet points of (referenced) summarised actual data:

  • When young people are already engaging in one risk-taking behaviour, other risk-taking behaviours are more likely to follow.
  • There are three levels of brain development. 1) the corpus striatum or “reptilian brain,” which is responsible for routine and instinct (movement); it develops earliest. 2) The limbic brain is the “seat of emotions” (feeling) and develops next. 3) Neocortex or cortex-which accounts for 80 percent of brain volume-is the last to mature and is involved in (thought) reasoning and complex “higher road” thinking. For this reason, McLean (1949) proposed three brain development “streams”-movement, feeling, and thought.[1]
  • The cortex is the “executive filter” assisting the lower centres, and is used in discerning response.
  • “Limbic system circuits are relatively fixed and can powerfully affect our (thoughts) cognitions.” (Glendon, 2006, p. 139).
  • The longer (but preferred) route of cognition is via the “higher road” or cortex. It’s involved in more detailed, factual analysis of things, events and situations.
  • The cerebellum (responsible for posture and movement) is the oldest part of the brain and continues to grow well into the late adolescence.[2]
  • Young male drivers (17-19 years) have significantly more risk of crashing when negotiating a bend than male drivers of 30-39 years of age, and females of the same age.
  • The hippocampus has connections with both limbic structures and neocortex has a vital “role in integrating emotion with cognition”-feeling and thought. (Glendon, 2006, p. 139).
  • Melatonin peaks later in the day for adolescents as compared with children and adults could explain why they prefer to go to bed later and wake later. This means teens and young adults probably cope better with shift work generally than do mature adults.
  • Because the right ventral striatum is less active in adolescence, teenagers are more driven to risky behaviour because reward-seeking is suppressed, and not the motivator it could be i.e. the reward for staying safe.
  • Teenagers are more frustrated by a decision-making gambling task (“probability matching”) than children and adults because the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is not fully matured until the mid-20s.
  • Young people might be able to “see” as well as adults but they cannot perceive risks as well because they’ve yet to develop the higher level (cortex) cognitive interpretive functions.
  • Young people appear to engage in “extended reasoning” in risky situations which is paradoxically not good because it’s a time when instincts should come into play. Adults are “more likely to create a mental image of possible [injurious] outcomes.” (Glendon, 2006, p. 141). Furthermore, the extended reasoning produces a longer response time, when a visceral response (gut reaction) would suffice.
  • The brain changes anatomically in a marked way between the ages of 18 and 25, explaining in part why insurance companies have “under 25 clauses.”
  • Gender differences in brain development are marked. “Girls’ brains develop faster than boys… the typical brain of a 17-year-old boy resembles that of an 11-year-old girl.” (Glendon, 2006, p. 142). Using another measure: brain myelination, there is a 3-4 year gender difference in favour of females. Using this measure, men’s’ brain development does not “catch up” to women’s until the age of 29.
  • Whilst there have been a number of cross-sectional studies done, there have been very few longitudinal studies[3] and there is a need for this to be addressed.
  • Full brain maturity for both genders is said to be mid- to late-twenties; in the meantime, the “brain is being driven by hormonal changes” and behavioural safety issues due to this need to be managed. (Glendon, 2006, p. 142).
  • “Brain systems controlling arousal, emotional experiences and social information processing become much more active at puberty.” This explains why we see “increases in novelty seeking, sensation seeking and risk-taking behaviours” in teenagers. (Glendon, 2006, p. 143-44).
  • Road crash data suggests that the risk of a crash increases with “each additional member of their peer group as a passenger.” (Glendon, 2006, p. 144). This means that parents should try and set a limit on their teens driving with only one or two peers in the car. Perhaps four or five teens in one car is asking for trouble?
  • Peer pressure is still a significant issue for people until around age 25 due to frontal lobe immaturity.
  • Multi-tasking functions are not perfected until young adulthood. Young drivers are even more susceptible to accidents when using mobile phones, CD players etc while driving than adults are. Adolescents should be given only one task at a time until it is shown they can cope with more.
  • “Preventing exposure to a hazard” is likely to be the best way to protect young people, workers and drivers. (Glendon, 2006, p. 144). In other words, close attention should be paid to protecting, and providing for, the safety of young people in hazardous environments like roads. Supervision controls are appropriate and preferred.
  • Parents are critical role models for their teenagers in regard to driving behaviour-particularly the same-gender parent. If a father behaves inappropriately on the road, the teen son is likely to repeat it.
  • In the working context, more mature workers set the tone for workplace culture and adolescents often simply conform to that culture. No matter how good the safety systems are, if the culture allows for adolescents to take risks, they will take them.
  • Key Reference:

    Glendon, I., Brain development during adolescence: some implications for risk-taking and injury liability, in Journal of Occupational Health and Safety: Australia and New Zealand, 2006, 22(2): 137-150.


    [1] Jones, Joseph M. (1995) Affects as Process: an Inquiry into the Centrality of Affect in the Psychological Life (Contributor Joseph D. Lichtenberg, 268 pages, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, New Jersey and London) pp. 62-63.

    [2] Goodburn, Elizabeth A., and Ross, David A. (1995). “A Picture of Health: A Review and Annotated Bibliography of the Health of Young People in Developing Countries.” Published by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The World Health Organization quantifies “adolescence” as from ages 10-19 years.

    [3] Longitudinal studies typically involve following a cohort group for 20-30 years, and are obviously rarer in research circles as compared with cross-sectional studies as it is hard to keep track of the same group of individuals for that length of time.