of Risk Behaviors in Youth including:
The incidence and prevalence of risk taking in adolescence indicates that
risky behavior is a common aspect of the adolescent experience. Indeed,
some risk taking is considered developmentally appropriate. Whether attempting
mastery or testing limits, taking risks appears to be a way of gaining
self-understanding toward the main developmental tasks of adolescence,
forming an identity and developing autonomy. Although adolescents take
a disproportionate number of risks compared to any other population, there
is no indication that most are willfully attempting to harm themselves
or others. What often looks to others like irrational behavior, risk taking
by adolescents can be a rational process (Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992).
Yet the taking of certain risks can have grave consequences. As the frequency
and intensity of risk taking increases, risk taking no longer serves a
positive developmental purpose and becomes problematic (Irwin & Millstein,
1991). Early involvement in risk taking has been found to result in the
worst outcomes (Dryfoos, 1990). Most troublesome are risks taken in conjunction
with other risks such as drinking and operating a motor vehicle or sexual
activity without contraception; indeed, there is strong evidence that
risk taking behaviors co-occur, taking place in a variety of domains (Irwin
& Millstein, 1991). Gratuitous risk taking, or recklessness, where risk
is not minimized and perhaps even consciously exaggerated when precautions
could be taken against it, are particularly problematic (Arnett, 1992).
Although some risk taking behaviors are socially sanctioned, such as extreme
sports, a challenge lies in distinguishing between those behaviors which
are health-enhancing and health-compromising. Norms for risk taking behaviors
are often community- or ethnic-specific.
Risk can be defined as "the appraised likelihood of a negative outcome
for behavior" (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 124). Risk taking behaviors are "volitional,
purposive, goal-oriented and carry potential for harm" (Lightfoot, 1997,
p. 22). In studying adolescent risk taking, many explanatory models and
points of view have emerged. Cognitive factors (i.e., risk perception),
biological factors (i.e., hormonal effects), personality factors (i.e.,
sensation seeking tendency), and environmental factors/influences (i.e.,
parents and peer groups) have been studied within a developmental context
in attempts to understand and prevent unhealthy risk taking and its negative
consequences. Some models address the interaction of these factors (Jessor
1992; Irwin, 1993; Udry, 1994). The study of risk/protective factors and
resiliency have resulted in a greater understanding of how individual
and contextual factors combine either to put adolescents at risk or to
prevent the actualization of risk (i.e., Werner, 1989).
An understanding of the meaning of risk taking in the adolescent culture,
from the adolescent perspective, is essential to successful prevention
and intervention of health-compromising risk behavior, as well as an understanding
of healthy adolescent development (Lightfoot, 1997). In her work of interviewing
adolescents, Lightfoot (1997) found that adolescents take risks for many
reasons; in defiance of authority, as a commitment to peers, as a transforming
experience, and to define relationships with others. Sharing risks resulted
in cohesion, trust, and greater closeness with peers. Since risks were
found to vary according to different peer groups, risk taking becomes
a badge of social identity. In addition, she found that adolescents believe
there is a social expectation for them to take risks. Although risks were
understood to hold a high potential for harm or loss, they also were considered
to hold potential for growth and opportunity.
Lyng (1993) describes the motivation for adolescent risk taking as an
attempt to gain personal control over an environment perceived by adolescents
as mostly within the control of adults. Not only does this perception
go against the developmental needs of adolescents, but it speaks to the
reality that adolescents do not see sufficient important roles for themselves
in society. This idea is supported by the work of The Search Institute
which states that "Most youth perceive that they are devalued by adults
and most report that their community does not provide useful roles where
their energy can be constructively channeled" (Benson, 1998, p. 235).
The following component elements of risk taking include both biopsychosocial
factors and environmental factors that can be considered predisposing
factors to risk taking. Whether or not predisposing factors lead to risky
choices and behavior depends largely upon the social and cultural context
where the choice is made (Irwin, 1993). Socialization is crucial to this
process (Arnett, 1992).
||High sensation seeking
||Developmental propensity toward
||Cognitive factors, i.e., cognitive
||Lack of knowledge
||Gender (males are
more likely to engage in risky behavior)
||Social transitions, i.e., school
||Socioeconomic Status; poverty
||Family Factors, i.e., parenting
behavior and style
Given that half of 10 to 17 year olds are at high or moderate risk of compromising
a healthy future lifestyle due to activities such as substance abuse, unsafe
sex, delinquency, and school failure (Dryfoos, 1990), it is important that
the factors most likely to disinhibit the actualization of possible risks
be identified. Werner (1989), as a result of a 32-year longitudinal study
on high-risk children determined three categories of protective factors
which can be viewed as disinhibitors of risk: dispositional attributes,
family bonds and support; and external support systems. The Search Institute,
in a large-scale study of thousands of youth determined 40 developmental
assets essential to healthy adolescent development, 20 assets which are
internal and 20 assets which are external. Internal assets include commitment
to learning; positive values; social competencies; and positive identity.
External assets include support; empowerment; boundaries and expectations;
and constructive use of time made possible by a community's socializing
systems (Benson, 1998). The Search Institute found that developmental assets
are protective for many forms of risk taking. As assets increase, risk taking
On an individual level, interventions within the context of a particular
problem behavior have proven most effective (Weissberg & Elias, 1993). Yet
the majority of current research on adolescent risk taking focuses on a
more ecological approach. "Successful programs address both risk and protective
processes at several levels of the human ecology to create a comprehensive,
multifaceted effort" (Bogenschneider, 1996, p. 132). Dryfoos (1993) has
identified common components of successful programs aimed at reducing high-risk
behaviors. Simply put, successful programs have multiple components, multiple
settings, and multiple goals. The underlying reason for success is a focus
on the factors putting individuals at risk, as opposed to individual risk
behaviors. This emphasizes the importance of context to both problem behaviors
and their prevention.
The consequences of risk taking by adolescents puts all of society at risk
through lessened potential for our collective future (Lerner, 1995). It
is time to come together with the resources available and the knowledge
gained thus far toward creating a more hopeful future for all of society.
A common vision and a unified effort is needed. Researchers willing to focus
on the evaluation of programs to ensure that efforts are more than just
well-intentioned is essential to learn what works best at different ages,
with different issues, and with different target populations. In addition,
early and continuous intervention is the key (Bogenschneider, 1996). Werner
(1989) found that protective factors at different life stages continue to
have a positive influence over time, working something like a chain reaction.
If this is the case, early identification of those most "at risk" for negative
outcomes in the future will come first. Prevention efforts focused on doing
what is possible to reduce risk factors as well as enhancing protective
factors appears warranted.
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perspective. Developmental Review, 12, 339-373.
Benson, P. L. (1998). Mobilizing communities to promote developmental
assets: A promising strategy for the prevention of high-risk behaviors.
Family Science Review, 11, 220-238.
Bogenschneider, K. (1996). An ecological risk/protective theory for building
prevention programs, policies, and community capacity to support youth.
Family Relations, 45, 127-138.
Dryfoos, J. (1990). Adolescents at risk. New York: Oxford University Press.
Furby, L., & Beyth-Marom, R. (1992). Risk taking in adolescence: A decision
making perspective. Developmental Review, 12, 1-44.
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for understanding and action. Developmental Review, 12, 374-390.
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Lyng, S. (1993). Dysfunctional risk taking: Criminal behavior as edgework.
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