I’ve been reading about dismay in college towns. Coronavirus transmission is up, and it’s because of young people gathering. Somehow, in the midst of planning the reopening, we didn’t get the messaging right. Parents and colleges and the media in general have reported extensively on the risks, but it hasn’t made these young people avoid gatherings.
Something key has been overlooked.
Because adolescence is filled with experimentation, new milestones, and new freedoms, it is also filled with risk. Adults warn and explain and teens have a good understanding of the risks.
So why do they still do risky things? We think that if they understood the risks, they’d avoid them, but they do understand and they’re not abstaining from dangerous situations. Why? Researchers have studied this. The simple answer is that teens overestimate the benefits (not the drawbacks).
Think about it:
- We adults know that impressing 17 year olds isn’t much of an achievement, certainly not a long-lasting one, but your teen feels it’s incredibly important.
- We know that having consensual sex is pleasurable, but awkward or nonconsensual sex is not, and that teen sex often falls into the second category. Teens don’t know that – they think having sex must be the best experience ever.
- We know that a house party might be an evening of fun, but that’s it. The party probably won’t change your social standing or develop healthy relationships. Teens overestimate the benefits of a party because they see the world full of possibility.
That’s why college towns are struggling with young people spreading coronavirus. Young people understand the risk but overestimate the benefits of gathering together. Their cost-benefit analysis results in a green light.
You see, we’re talking to them as if they’re adults. Adults have already had these foundational experiences and know what the benefits are. Kids have not. Telling an adult about the risks is giving the adult enough information. A kid needs more to make a good decision.
We do not help when we re-explain the risks. That’s not the “more” that they need, and they just brush us off. They’ve heard it before, and they really do understand the risks. Instead, we must calibrate our adolescent’s understanding of the rewards.
This is not new knowledge; research on adolescent risk-taking behavior, and how to shift it, goes back decades.
You can explain this very plainly: “You’re learning to make your own decisions. To do that, you’ll need to understand the risks and the rewards, and while kids have learned a lot about the risks, we adults often forget to set expectations about the rewards. Movies give you the wrong sense of things. Can I tell you about my personal experience with ____ (parties, alcohol, sex, drugs)?” Then tell them that the experience wasn’t all that. I remember attending a frat party and being disappointed – it wasn’t nearly as fun as I expected it to be.
Calibrating the rewards is not shooting down their optimism or idealism. It’s grounding them in reality.
What do you think? Is this doable? Please add your comments below!
In support of you,
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