A Dangerous Time
Why do teens take risks, and what do our notions of risk tell us about the dangers of growing up? Michael Pearce, director of the Exploratorium’s Mind Project, reflects on what risk-taking tells us about being human.

A Dangerous Time
by Michael Pearce

Young people take risks: The association is common, and usually followed by a string of admonitions—never drink and drive, stay away from that neighborhood, stop eating that junk, don’t hang out with those guys. Most older folks agree that for reasons having vaguely to do with half-formed minds in grown-up bodies, teens and young adults tend to take risks that may get them into trouble.

There are statistics supporting our stereotypes about young people and the chances they take. Automobile accidents are the number-one killer of young people 1 and teen drivers 16 to 19 are four times more likely to crash than older people. 2 Half of all new HIV infections are thought to occur in people under 25. 3 Homicide rates are highest for the 18-24 age group. 4 Alcohol and drugs are not only dangerous in themselves but also increase the likelihood of reckless driving, unsafe sex, and violence; surveys suggest that 20% of eighth graders and 58% of high school seniors have been drunk at least once. 5

So there is indeed cause for worry and parental vigilance—but adolescent risk-taking has another side as well. A few years ago, I saw a movie that made me think differently about young people and the chances they take. Sure, the surfers in Riding Giants did crazy, dangerous things; surfing waves fifty feet high can certainly get you killed. But the passion and skill, the creativity and dogged diligence with which these surfers pursued their giant waves also reminded me of how musicians, scientists, engineers, and other creative and driven people approach their work. Serious surfers plan, analyze, develop innovative solutions, and do their best not to get hurt in the course of their adventures. Some even design their own surfboards. It just so happens that they operate in an arena more fraught with physical danger than most of us experience. The outcome is one of thrilling beauty, grace, and wonder.

Our species is not the only one with crazy youngsters. In his wonderful essay The Young and the Reckless , 6 Robert Sapolsky describes how adolescent male baboons leave the comforts of home, family, and friends to seek out other troops, then spend months living with the danger and alienation of being unwanted outsiders among uncaring and hostile strangers. Something drives them to step away from the cozy and familiar and plunge into a difficult, scary new world. The risk often pays off—the young, awkward, alien male eventually finds a place (and a mate) in his new society, baboon life goes on, and the problem of genetic inbreeding is overcome.

As Sapolsky points out, among humans it is often the risk-taking young who make surprising scientific discoveries or invent new art forms or technologies. Arthur Rimbaud startled the 19th century European literary world with his innovative poetry, then quit writing at the age of 20. Charlie “Bird” Parker, the great alto saxophonist and a key figure in the development of modern jazz, began changing chordal relationships and melodic structure when he was 19 (and died tragically at 34). James Watson helped to discover the structure of DNA before he was 25, and Einstein revolutionized physics by 26.

In fact, while we cannot ignore the scary and very real risks that face young people—alcohol and drugs, automobiles, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, even surfing—we should remind ourselves of the everyday risks we hope and expect they will take. We want them to try out for the basketball team or school play, to play a solo in band, to say hi to the cute person in math class. We also want them to refuse to go along with the bad behavior of others. A life fully lived has many risks, whatever the age of the person living it. The young, faced with so much that is new and untried, have to take chances just to figure out who they are. As they define themselves through the things they do, they’ll also be shaping the world around them through the risks they take.

1 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006

2 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2006

3 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006

4 U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007

5 National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Monitoring the Future,” 2005

6 In Sapolsky, The Trouble With Testosterone , Simon and Schuster, 1998