New Castle News

Editorials

October 9, 2012

Our Opinion: Latest research examines how young people see danger

NEW CASTLE — “The Generation Gap” is a catch-all term used to describe communication difficulties between young people and adults.

While this gap is sometimes overly dramatized, both children and adults have experienced difficulties in understanding what people on the other side of this generational divide are thinking. And in some cases, it’s speculated the opposing group isn’t thinking at all.

Stereotypes have long played a role in defining the generation gap. Adults often dismiss seemingly inexplicable attitudes and activities among children as the result of immaturity, or perhaps simply a desire to rebel against their elders.

Conversely, young people can see adults as rigid and unimaginative, creating and following rules more out of habit than any other reason.

In recent years, however, science has begun to explore the human brain, and how it changes as individuals age. It may explain some of the generation gap.

And a report published yesterday by TIME.com explores one of the key concerns adults have regarding teenage behavior: The tendency of young people to engage in high-risk activities. These can include everything from drug use to binge drinking to reckless driving — along with a host of more mundane actions that can lead to serious harm.

We suppose it comes as no great surprise that the brains of teens and adults assess risk differently, according to researchers. But the TIME.com report noted that one unexpected discovery was that the rational parts of teen brains spend more time assessing dangers than adults do.

But that’s probably because adults will reject the risks out of hand, while teens will think about them. Playing a game of Russian roulette was presented as an example.

Furthermore, when interviewed, teens tend to view many risks as far more dangerous statistically than they actually are. One example given: Teens surveyed estimated that a sexually active girl has a 60 percent chance of contracting AIDS on average. But in reality, the risk is far lower.

Yet this overestimation of such risks in mathematical terms does not necessarily translate into behavior designed to avoid the danger. Researchers believe teens focus on the immediate rewards of risky behavior, while downplaying the long-term real-life consequences.

No doubt many adults already realize that.

Although such research may be interesting, does it create meaningful opportunities for adults to help young people make better decisions when it comes to risk?

Maybe. One suggestion offered in the TIME.com article involved vehicle simulations that mimic drunk driving. It’s theorized that young people often make bad decisions related to risk because they have limited experience. Simulations that allow teens to see what happens when engaging in risky behavior — without producing actual danger — may create the learning situations their brains need.

Perhaps there are ways to teach teens to better protect themselves — and narrow the generation gap at the same time.

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