Program Outcomes for Youth
Reduction of Risk Behaviors in Youth including: 
Risk Taking
Dawn Scott

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).

Component Elements:
High sensation seeking tendency
Developmental propensity toward risk taking
Cognitive factors, i.e., cognitive biases
Lack of knowledge of consequences
Gender (males are more likely to engage in risky behavior)
Hormonal effects
Biological maturation
Social transitions, i.e., school transitions
Socioeconomic Status; poverty
Family Factors, i.e., parenting behavior and style
Peer behaviors/influences
Community/neighborhood variables
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 behaviors decrease.

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.


Arnett, J. (1992). Reckless behavior in adolescence: A developmental 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.

Irwin, C. (1993). Adolescence and risk taking: How are they related? Bell, N. J., & Bell, R. W. (eds.). Adolescent risk taking. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Irwin, C., & Millstein, S. (1991). Correlates and predictors of risk-taking behavior during adolescence. Lipsitt, L., & Mitnick, L. (eds). Self-regulatory behavior and risk taking: Causes and consequences. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Jessor, R. (1992). Risk behavior in adolescence: A psychosocial framework for understanding and action. Developmental Review, 12, 374-390.

Lerner, R. M. America's Youth in Crisis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Lightfoot, C. (1997). The culture of adolescent risk taking. New York: The Guilford Press.

Lyng, S. (1993). Dysfunctional risk taking: Criminal behavior as edgework. Bell, N. J., & Bell, R. W. (eds.). Adolescent risk taking. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Udry, J. R. (1994). Integrating biological and sociological models of adolescent problem behaviors. Ketterlinus, R. D., & Lamb, M. E. (eds.). Adolescent problem behaviors: Issues and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Weissberg, R. P., & Elias, M. J. (1993). Enhancing young people's social competence and health behavior: An important challenge for educators, scientists, policymakers, and funders. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 2, 179-190.

Werner, E. (1989). High-risk children in young adulthood: A longitudinal study from birth to 32 years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59, 72-81.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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