Teenage foolhardiness may be dangerous, but it's also socially vital—and malleable.
There is a method to teenage madness, and learning to think like a teenager may be the secret to handling adolescents' often egregious risk-taking, suggests a report in Developmental Psychology.
"The misunderstanding that people often have is that they think kids are just seeking thrills," says lead author Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona. The real payoffs are social: acceptance into a group or a reputation for toughness.
Teenagers play drinking games, smoke, and act heedlessly in large part because they deeply want to impress each other. Those who take more chances gain status among their peers, researchers have found, which helps them compete with rivals and win over potential mates.
Scare tactics that ignore the advantages of risk-taking to teenagers often backfire. "In advertising the dangers of driving fast," Ellis notes, "you make reckless driving more of a status symbol."
Rather than trying to stomp out teens' status-seeking impulses, interventions should appeal to them. In one study, an antismoking campaign was more effective when it de-emphasized dangerous health risks and promoted the social benefits of not smokinginstead.
Stephen Wallace, an adolescent counselor and former national chair of Students Against Destructive Decisions, has witnessed these findings in practice. SADD ran an anti-underage drinking campaign that played to teenagers' need for social gain by warning them not to get drunk and embarrass themselves. Its slogan: "Don't be that guy."