Children growing up in the US are more likely to take risks than their counterparts in Puerto Rico, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Experts widely agree that the greatest threats to the well-being of young people in industrialized societies come from preventable and often self-inflicted causes, including automobile and other accidents, violence, drug and alcohol use, and sexual risk-taking.
Millions of dollars are spent educating teenagers to avoid risky behavior, with little effect. Accidents continue to account for nearly half of all fatalities among American youth.
It is also true that some teens seek risky experiences more than others. The current findings further suggest that the environment in which children grow up may influence their likelihood of taking risks.
Researchers at Columbia University and the University of Puerto Rico have carried out the first study of this kind into sensation-seeking patterns in young children and teenagers.
The team studied likely predictors of sensation-seeking behaviors in nearly 3,000 children, all of Puerto Rican background, approximately half of whom were living in Puerto Rico and half in the South Bronx.
Children were asked to agree or disagree with statements like: “Sometimes you like to do things that are a little scary,” and “Riding very fast and doing tricks on a skateboard are fun.”
Results were measured on a 10-item sensation-seeking scale.
In both groups, a spike in sensation-seeking behavior was first seen at ages 10-11, with rates climbing to age 17. More than 75% of the children were in the “normative” and “low-sensation-seeking” classes, in which sensation-seeking scores increased as expected with age.
However, 16% had sensation-seeking scores that increased faster than expected with age, and 7% started with high sensation-seeking scores that decreased over time.
Rates of sensation-seeking were consistently higher in the South Bronx than Puerto Rico, and youth in the South Bronx generally reported sensation-seeking at an earlier age.
First author Dr. Silvia Martins, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology, explains:
“Children born into families of migrants scored higher in sensation-seeking either because they inherited a ‘novelty-seeking’ trait from their parents, or because they were exposed to family environments and different parenting practices that promoted certain behaviors.”
Dr. Martins also notes that, besides poverty, children living in the South Bronx are more likely to be exposed to violence, peer delinquency or stressful life events, compared with children in Puerto Rico.
Boys and young men also scored higher on sensation-seeking than girls and young women. This is believed to be linked to testosterone, which is associated with risk-taking behavior, as well as culturally-mediated gender differences.
Sensation-seeking behavior in adolescents has been shown to be a factor in health risks, from suicide and frequent illegal drug use to problem gambling and unprotected sex.
Dr. Martins concludes that sensation-seeking is not just a personality trait or a rite of passage, but it is also affected by a number of factors, including the environment in which a child grows up.
Previous studies have indicated that risk-taking results from changes in the brain’s cognitive control system.
In adolescence and young adulthood, structural and functional changes occur within the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain believed to regulate cognitive and socio-emotional responses, among other functions.
The changes ultimately improve individual capacity for self-regulation, but during adolescence, they appear to make individuals more vulnerable to risk.
Medical News Today previously reported that teens take risks because they are happy to accept unknown consequences.