teens, pessimism, fatalism teens, teens die young

Pessimism Drives Reckless Behavior Among Teens

July 01, 2009 01:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
For many teenagers, a fatalistic outlook on life leads to careless life choices and behavior, and threatens to turn pessimism into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Fast Times for American Teens

An age-old “teenage myth of invulnerability” assumes that teens’ recklessness comes from a belief in their immunity to harm. A new study published in the July issue of Pediatrics magazine, however, revealed teens’ shockingly pessimistic views on their life expectancy: Approximately 15 percent of the 20,000 teenagers surveyed believed they “had a good chance of dying before age 35,” The Associated Press reported.

According to Lindsey Tanner, a medical writer for the AP, this defeatist belief leads teenagers to engage in unsafe behavior, including drug use, gang fights, suicide attempts and unprotected sex. These behaviors increase the chance that their premature fatalism will become “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” As the AP notes, “Over seven years, kids who thought they would die early were seven time more likely than optimistic kids to be subsequently diagnosed with AIDS … to attempt suicide and get in fights resulting in serious injuries.”

Contrary to the belief that teenagers underestimate the consequences of risky behavior, this new study explains that many teenagers behave recklessly “because they feel hopeless and figure that not much is at stake,” study author Dr. Iris Borowsky, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, told the AP.

Scientists have long worked on debunking the “teenage myth of invulnerability,” which many parents regard as the apparent cause for their children’s engagement in dangerous behavior. Nancy Shute, writing for U.S. News & World Report, cites Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. After years studying human behavior and risk, Fischhoff came to the conclusion that “teenagers may feel more strongly than adults do that life is beyond their control.”

Maura Lerner, writing for the Star Tribune, notes that race was also a factor in teenage pessimism; teenagers from racial minorities were found to be more pessimistic than teenagers coming from white backgrounds. “Nearly three in 10 American Indians, and one in four blacks, expected to die young, compared to one in 10 whites,” Lerner wrote.

Background: Teenage suicide rate worries mental health experts

In 2004, the rate of teenage suicides jumped by 18 percent; teen suicides had been declining since 1996. Also in 2004, antidepressant use dropped among teenagers after the Food and Drug Administration required labels warning that children could have suicidal thoughts while taking the medications.

A similar spike in child and teen suicides in Canada also coincided with officials there warning the public about prescribing antidepressants for children. A Canadian study found that more than 90 percent of the children who committed suicide were not taking antidepressants.

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