Teenagers tend to wildly overestimate the odds of dying young, and teenagers who think they'll be dead before age 35 are far more likely to abuse drugs, attempt suicide, get arrested, or contract HIV. Scientists have known for quite a while that teenagers tend to think that an early death is much more likely than the infinitesimally small risk it really is. What's recently been discovered, and is intriguing for teens and the people who love them, is that there seems to be a connection between having a fatalistic take on life and behaving in ways that actually make it more likely that you will die—or at least be sick and miserable—instead of blossoming into a healthy young adult.
Here's the back story: When 20,745 teenagers in grades 7 to 12 were asked about their chances of living to age 35, about 15 percent of them said there was at least a fifty-fifty chance that they would not make it. In truth, the odds of dying that young are almost vanishingly small. Interestingly, it seems that death is uniquely confounding as a risk, because teenagers aren't off base when guessing their chances of other life-changing events, including getting pregnant, becoming a parent, being a victim of violence, or being jailed.
I think most of us parents tend to worry, on the contrary, that teenagers have a grandiose sense that they are invulnerable—that teenage "myth of invulnerability." But scientists who study human behavior and risk long ago punctured that myth. Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University who pioneered research on risk and decision making, says that teenagers may feel more strongly than adults do that life is beyond their control.
Given that, it's not hard to see how a fatalistic teenager could decide that risky behavior just isn't worth avoiding. The new data, which came from the University of Minnesota and were published in the July Pediatrics, found that teens who anticipated an early death when first asked in 2005 were more likely to have made a suicide attempt, been injured in a fight, had unsafe sex, or been arrested a year later. They were also more likely to have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in 2001 or 2002. This correlation gives doctors a new way to screen teenagers for the likelihood of coming to harm, the Minnesota researchers say, something that is surprisingly difficult to do. Parents, teachers, and coaches could ask if a child thinks early death is likely, correct the misperception if so, and explain that, since a long life is far more likely, it makes sense to take good care of oneself now.
There's an even sadder subtext to these data: Some fatalistic teenagers were more on target than others. Minority teenagers were far more likely to predict an early death, with 29 percent of Native Americans, 26 percent of blacks, and 21 percent of Hispanics expecting to die young, compared with 10 percent of whites. The fatalistic teens were also more likely to be poor. Minorities and poor people are far more likely to have health problems than someone who is white and well off.
There's been a lot of news lately about teenagers and mental health, including a call for depression screening of all teenagers by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Teenagers do indeed see the world much differently from adults, and I'm fascinated at how the teenage brain can be amazingly powerful, while also making teenagers do really dumb things. Think you know the teen brain? Try this teen brain quiz.