Live fast, die young

It's not a sense of immortality that fuels reckless teen behavior, a study says. It's expectation of an early death

By Judy Berman

Published June 30, 2009 1:31PM (EDT)

A well-worn, pop-psychology cliché holds that teenagers engage in risky behavior -- casual sex, illegal drugs, drunk driving, etc. -- because they feel immortal. Young people, it is said, have the illusion they will live forever. But as a kid who spent a good deal of time lamenting her own mortality (I was weird) and still managed to engage in plenty of activities I'm not ready to own up to publicly, I've always found this idea reductive.

And it looks like scientists are beginning to agree. Time magazine reports that a new study, published in July's issue of the journal Pediatrics, shows that it may be teens' belief that they will die young -- not their feelings of indestructibility -- that attracts them to risky activities:

In a long-term analysis of 20,594 American teens in grades 7 through 12, researchers interviewed the youngsters on three different occasions: first in 1995, again in 1996, then a final follow-up from 2000 to 2001. At the first interview, 1.4% of participants thought there was "almost no chance" that they'd reach their mid-30s; 2.4% thought it was possible, but hugely unlikely; and 10.9% believed they had only about a 50-50 shot of celebrating their 35th birthday.

The roughly 15 percent of adolescents who expected an early demise were more likely than teens who believed they wouldn't die young "to make potentially life-threatening choices -- such as getting into violent fights or having unprotected sex with multiple partners."

The study also found, unsurprisingly, that well-off white teens were less likely than their poor and minority counterparts to anticipate an early death. Sadly, as Time notes, the young people's expectations jive with government data, which shows that these predictions often come true.

One of the study's authors, Dr. Iris Wagman Borowsky, sees the results as evidence of a self-fulfilling prophecy. "What's disturbing to me is how this could contribute to health disparities among minorities as well as youths from different socioeconomic backgrounds," she told Time. "If youths are in an environment where they look around and see more adults dying early, then they may develop this perception that they will die early as well."

But the Time article ends on a hopeful note, as Borowsky suggests that perhaps the key to stopping these risky behaviors -- and, ultimately, helping poor people and minorities live longer -- is making sure teens are thinking positively about their future: "She believes we can make a difference -- even save lives -- just by asking teens one simple question: 'What do you want to do when you get older?'"

While I would love to believe that it will be so easy to improve such a frustrating, depressing situation, the idea of asking a single question -- "What do you want to do when you get older?" -- feels feeble and naive. I may not be a scientist, but I do know this: For teens who may have lost a parent to jail or murder, who live in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence, where there may be a drug dealer on every corner, it's going to take a much bigger effort to bring about real change.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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