LYNN NEARY, host:
JOANNE SILBERNER: This is Joanne Silberner. Parents would like to keep their kids safe, but it seems that risk-taking among teens is pretty hard wired.
Laurence Steinberg of Temple University researches risky behavior. He says, blame evolution.
Professor LAURENCE STEINBERG (Psychology, Temple University): Adolescence in most species is a time when individuals have to leave the adults that were protecting them and go out in the wild and begin to mate. That's not what human adolescence is like anymore, but we probably inherited, I think, some tendency toward being willing to tolerate some risky behavior.
SILBERNER: Steinberg says risky behavior is not necessarily a bad thing.
Prof. STEINBERG: Risk-taking also means getting up on a stage in front of people and acting in a school play or asking somebody out that you're afraid to ask out.
SILBERNER: Risky behavior develops over time. Steinberg has found that it peaks around age 15 or 16, when kids focus on the rewards of risky behavior, the shoplifted items, for example. Then as their brains develop, it starts to drop off. But there's something that's pretty constant across the teenage years.
Prof. STEINBERG: Our own research here at Temple shows that when kids are with their friends they're much more inclined to take risks than when they're by themselves.
SILBERNER: Steinberg and his colleagues set up a laboratory test. Kids played a video game where they had to decide whether to go through yellow lights.
Prof. STEINBERG: And teenagers, when they're with their friends, crashed that car twice as often as when they're by themselves.
SILBERNER: Adults show no difference whether their friends were around or not. But adults do play a big role in teen risk-taking he says, like that cell phone use while driving.
Prof. STEINBERG: I think it's important to acknowledge that even though teenagers engage in more risky behavior than adults, adults engage in a lot of risky behavior as well. And I think it's important for parents to know that your children are watching you.
SILBERNER: Child psychiatrist Lynn Ponton of the University of California in San Francisco knows that well. The major reason parents bring their children in to see her is problems with risk-taking. When Ponton was raising her own two daughters, she made sure to talk about her own risk-taking, especially when it came to her driving.
Professor LYNN PONTON (Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco): I'd say look, I nearly went through that stoplight there. That's pretty unhealthy. I'm going to pull over and take a few minutes to relax, but nobody should be driving this way.
SILBERNER: Both her daughters had risk issues. One had an inordinate number of skateboard injuries and was a frequent visitor to the emergency room. The other took too few risks. Not good either.
Prof. PONTON: And I had to learn to recognize her pattern and then help her learn to recognize it and to make healthier choices.
SILBERNER: That is to get out more and do more things. That daughter came home from school one day all excited about fencing. Ponton says sports are great for both kids who take too few risks and those who take too many. A sport gives them a supervised outlet. Ponton's written a book called "The Romance of Risk." She says dealing with it is a matter of setting a good example and talking with your kids. And she says her family made it through the teenage years intact and healthy. But it's not over yet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. PONTON: Well, my kids are now in their late 20s and I still don't always think I'm there, Joanne.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
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