The XX Factor

Would You Abstain If You Thought You Were About To Die?

Adolescents are not known for reflecting upon their own mortality. They’re supposed to run around robotripping and crashing cars into brick walls because they “think they’re invincible” and thus incapable of risk/benefit analysis. But a recentish study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that teens are actually pretty morbid. When around 9,000 15- and 16-year-olds were asked “What is the chance that you will die from any cause in the next year?” and “What is the chance that you will die from any cause between now and when you turn 20?” they massively overestimated the likelihood of their own deaths. The mean responses were 18.6 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively, and the medians about half that. One in five teens put their likelihood of perishing soon at 50 percent. (The statistical death rate is .08 percent.) Adults do not overestimate their mortality to this degree. The obvious conclusion is that teens are innumerate as well as reckless. But they tend to be much more accurate at predicting the likelihood of other near-term life events, like whether they’ll get the flu.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m writing a story about the way our expectations of lifespan affect they way we map out our lives, but it also ties into the sex-ed discussion. It is difficult to change adolescent behavior. Supporters of any kind of sex ed who say it “works” tend, I think, to have a generous definition of “work”-at least that’s what I took from the Kristin Luker book Hanna mentions . The perceived mortality numbers suggest that kids see a world full of lethal risks, of which sex is only one. “Adolescents need faith in their future so as to invest in their own human capital, by studying, working, and avoiding risky behaviors,” say the researchers. “That faith may require both the belief that specific threats are low and the feeling that their world will protect them from unnamed threats.” [Emphasis mine]

The suggestion is that alarmism can backfire. Much as I wish rainbow parties were real, our collective need to invent stories about carnal teens spiraling toward tragedy is probably not helping.