Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do teens think they might die young?

Since Haiti, it has been hard to know where to focus in order to resume blogging about teens. But the newest issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health has an article that caught my eye: "Adolescents' Perceived Risk of Dying" . For someone like me who has espoused the psychological tenet that adolescents "suffer" from a power and invincibility complex, the very title is intriguing.

Researchers at the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon reviewed a national sample of over 3000 14-18 year olds and a regional sample of seventh and ninth graders. Kids were asked about their chance of dying in the next year and before age 20 and about some defined threats to their physical well-being such as violent events, crime, personal safety and threats to their health.

Although the actual statistical death rate for this population is 0.08%, the teens studied estimated that their chances were between 5 and 10 percent. What is most interesting is that there was a strong correlation among teens who reported a higher probability of dying with feeling less safe, having been a victim of a violent crime, expecting to be a victim or seeing more gang activity in their neighborhoods.

The authors of the study combed in detail through the limitations of the study but in the end they exhort those of us who care about adolescents to be aware of this connection between perceived threats and expectations for life. Would a kid growing up in a threatening environment be more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors because of a "what the hell, life is short" attitude? These kids would benefit from counselling about the actual risk to them of their perceived threats. Only then can a teen be expected to dial down his fear and move beyond.

The authors end with this: "Adolescents need faith in their future so as to invest in their own human capital, by studying, working , and avoiding risky behaviors." Safety and the threat of violence should be a part of every teen conversation with social workers, pediatricians, guidance counselors, friends and parents.


  1. This behavior is threatening to turn on the fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy. Over seven years, when children who are believed they will die early seven times more likely than children later diagnosed with AIDS optimistic. They were also more likely to attempt suicide, get in fights resulting in serious injuries.


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