Adolescence is society's permission slip for combining physical maturity with psychological irresponsibility. Terry Apter
What kind of risks did you take as a teenager?
It's become a basic truism that adolescence can be a time when we are far more likely to engage in different kinds of risky behaviour. Since the teenage years often represent a "twilight stage" between childhood and adulthood, the desire to set aside childhood fears and try more adult activities can be hard to resist. This can mean experimentation with drug and alcohol use, sexual experimentation, and even brushes with the law at times. Certainly the negative stereotypes often associated with the teenage years go back a long way. At the dawn of the 20th century, eminent psychologist G. Stanley Hall referred to adolescence as "the time when an individual recapitulates the savage stage of the race's past." Later psychologists argued that teenagers are often extremely impulsive due to their relative lack of maturity and the kind of life experience that would make them avoid high-risk activities. Neurobiologists have even argued that adolescents lack the neurological maturity needed to control their impulsiveness.
But it doesn't end there. In recent years, some researchers have argued that the latest generation of young people (i.e., "kids these days") are much more narcissistic and lacking in empathy. This supposedly makes them less disciplined, more selfish, and less focused on self-improvement, an opinion that seems to be shared by the general population. As one example, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of American adults believed older adults to have better "moral values" than young people do (young people being defined as "millennials" in the survey).
Despite this constant bashing of young people though, the reality seems to be very different, at least in recent years. Since 1990, surveys have shown that that crime, substance use, and unprotected sex are all decreasing in recent years, at least in young Americans. And the overall decrease seems to apply to a wide range of risky behaviours traditionally linked to adolescence and young adulthood. In a recent article published in Archives of Scientific Psychology, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University provides an overview of risk behaviour in adolescents which seems downright encouraging for anyone despairing about the future.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.