Primary Sources: Understanding Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior

Drawing illustrating brain activity inside the silhouette of a teen's head

The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report,” Committee on the Science of Adolescence; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2011.

What it’s about: In 2008 and 2009, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council hosted three workshops that brought together experts on adolescent development, health and behavior to discuss why adolescents take risks. The workshop report was published this year.

Why read it: The report examines current theory and research on the influences that lead teens to take unhealthy risks and the factors that contribute to problems that youth workers address every day, such as pregnancy, crime and violence, and drug and alcohol use among teens.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Across the presentations, researchers talked about three types of influences on young people’s behavior:

  • Immediate influences on particular behaviors, such as beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of the behavior, perceptions about whether peers are doing it, and attitudes about whether it is right or wrong
  • Individual factors, such as emotional health, sensation seeking, impulsivity, goal setting, aptitudes, altruism, intelligence, and performance in school
  • Contextual and demographic factors, such as family, school, work, neighborhoods, religion, ethnicity, the media, and government policies

The report explains that these three types of influences interact in complex ways to shape adolescent behavior. In addition, the authors note, the physical changes that teens go through affect them at all levels, shaping their beliefs, attitudes, goals and personalities and influencing how they fare at school, at work and in their families. Youth workers may be more able to guide teen behavior by understanding how these various influences interact, the authors say.

Additional reference: You can find more titles from the Institute of Medicine’s Board on Children, Youth, and Families at:

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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