Leigh Shaw, associate psychology professor and colleague Eric Amsel, psychology professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, tried to answer why teenagers do drugs and alcohol and drive recklessly. Amsel said the idea came from a discussion in his the Adolescent Risk Taking class he teaches.
The study was done by giving out an online survey to 132 freshmen students around the age of 18, with an equal number of male and female students. Shaw and Amsel also had about six students helping them with their research.
The survey consisted of three parts. The first was measuring the students’ own risk behavior. That included how often they did drugs, alcohol or engaged in reckless driving. That was not the only factor that Shaw and Amsel said they wanted to look at, however.
“Frequency matters. . .but it doesn’t tell us why,” Shaw said.
The next part of the survey was to find out why students did or didn’t partake in risky behavior. They found that there were four different categories.
The students who indicated they haven’t done categories made up the first two categories: avoidance and opportunistic. Students who were in the avoidance category didn’t do drugs and alcohol because they thought they were too dangerous to do. Opportunistic teenagers didn’t do risky things, but might if they had the opportunity to.
The students who indicated they have done risky things made up the other two categories: curious and risk-taking. In the curious category, students performed risky behavior just because they wanted to know what it was like. The final category was the risk-taking category. These were the teenagers who wanted to do the risky behavior and never hid the fact they were doing them.
“I believe there is a teenager that fits in every one of those categories,” said 19-year-old Crystal Boatright. Boatright has never done drugs or alcohol and puts herself in the avoidance category. “I’ve seen the effects [drugs] have on people,” she said. “It tears friendships and families apart.”
In the final part of the survey, the students were given hypothetical scenarios and were asked to analyze whether it was okay for the person to engage in risky behavior. They were also given questions in which they answered why it would be okay or not okay to engage in that behavior.
“It was against my moral ethics,” said 21-year-old David Wheeler. Wheeler never did drugs or alcohol as a teenager. “I had friends who did. I watched them throw away their lives. It wasn’t what I wanted.”
Shaw said she thinks it is important to look at why students think they should or shouldn’t participate in risky behavior.
“I wonder if teens are more at risk over time,” Shaw said. “Things might change in six months as they meet more people.”
Amsel and Shaw want to do more research, possibly looking at a more diverse group. Currently, a student is doing a follow up on the research as a senior thesis.
One of the problems Shaw and Amsel looked at was how adults see teenagers and how that affects the teenagers’ risk for doing drugs or alcohol. Most adults just see teenagers as the ones who do and ones who don’t categories. Shaw said the situation is more complicated.
“We need to acknowledge that it is not one-size-fits-all,” Shaw said. “Teenagers are underestimated; people say they are immature. . . .That’s not true.”
Shaw said she believes parents should do more than just put a GPS in their teenagers’ car or phone.
“To have them grow up to be rational adults, they have to start talking. . . .They need to open the lines of communication,” she said.