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Institute of Medicine (US) and National Research Council (US) Committee on the Science of Adolescence. The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.

Cover of The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report

The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report.

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The Board on Children, Youth, and Families (BCYF) of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council (NRC) has organized a series of planning meetings, workshops, and consensus studies over the past decade that address different facets of adolescent health and development (see One focus of this work involves threats to adolescent health and well-being that inhere in young people’s inclination to engage in risky and reckless behavior. While many of these risks also affect young and even older adults, the circumstances of adolescence—including rapid developmental changes and physical growth as well as family and social contexts—mean that risk behavior at this stage is different in significant ways from adult behavior. The board has found considerable evidence that the greatest contributors to morbidity and mortality in adolescence are not disease and illness, but instead such behaviors as unsafe driving; experimentation with alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs; involvement in crime; and unsafe sex (NRC and IOM, 2001,2004, 2006, 2007).

Although significant progress has occurred in the study of adolescent risk-taking, the board observed that findings from this body of work had not been integrated across disciplines (e.g., neuroscience, psychology, sociology, public health) or risk domains (e.g., substance use, sexual risk-taking, delinquency). The board further thought that prevention and health promotion efforts would be informed by a systematic examination of current theory and research on adolescent risk-taking that drew on contributions from multiple disciplines and that focused on different risk behaviors.

From these decisions emerged a proposal for a series of workshops that would bring together scientists from a broad array of disciplines, including researchers who study adolescent brain, pubertal, cognitive, and psychosocial development; the influences of the family, peer group, school, neighborhood, community, and mass media on adolescent behavior; adolescent physical health, mental health, substance use, delinquency, sexual behavior, and driving; and approaches to the prevention of unhealthy adolescent risk-taking. The workshops and the formation of the committee that helped plan and convene them were funded by three offices in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: the Administration for Children and Families; the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The first of the three workshops convened by the Committee on the Science of Adolescence focused on the prevalence and nature of adolescent risk-taking and on the potential contributions of the neural, biological, intellectual, and socioemotional developments characteristic of adolescence. The second workshop examined interpersonal, institutional, and contextual influences on adolescent risk behavior. The final workshop integrated lessons learned from the previous two workshops, combining the prior emphases on individual and contextual influences and examining the potential implications of this work for policy and practice.

This report summarizes the presentations and discussions from the three workshops.1 It can serve to introduce readers to a small portion of current theory and research on contributors to risky behavior in adolescence. It is not intended as a comprehensive summary of the existing body of literature, nor does it make any specific recommendations. Its purpose is to stimulate further work on the subject and to encourage more of the cross-disciplinary thinking that characterized the workshops themselves. It is important to note that the workshop presenters were given a range of assignments and also took different approaches in their presentations. Some provided detailed overviews of research literature, whereas others were asked to discuss theoretical issues more abstractly or to explore links among different disciplines. This summary, which can only describe what was presented, reflects these variations and thus some sections include more thorough supporting citations than others.

We are particularly grateful for the contributions of the expert presenters, paper authors, and workshop participants who contributed to the meeting (see the appendixes for the workshop agendas and lists of participants). Special appreciation also goes to the members of the committee, who volunteered their time and intellectual efforts to shape the workshop programs and identify themes and contributors. In addition, we give special thanks to Alexandra Beatty, who prepared a comprehensive draft of the summary report; Jennifer Appleton Gootman, who directed the planning and workshops preparation and the production of the final publication; and Reine Y. Homawoo and Wendy Keenan, who assisted with preparation of the workshops and the final report.

Laurence Steinberg, Chair

Committee on the Science of Adolescence



Presentation materials from these workshops are available at http://www​​/adolescent_science_3workshops.html.

Copyright © 2011, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK53410


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