Conventional wisdom says teenagers do crazy things because they think they're invincible. But a new study finds that while many teens think they'll live forever, a sizable minority is downright fatalistic about their future.
Some 15 percent of adolescents aren't sure they'll live past 35, and these teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as doing drugs and having unsafe sex, according to a study by University of Minnesota researchers appearing in today's Pediatrics.
The figures are even more startling among minorities and teens living in poverty. Among whites, some 10 percent said they thought they might die young. Meanwhile, that figure was 26 percent for blacks, 21 percent for Latinos, 15 percent for Asians and a staggering 29 percent for Native Americans, the study found. Among black youth on public assistance, 1 in 3 youth shared these negative views.
There's no doubt that adolescence is a crazy, confusing time. But even researchers were troubled and surprised at the magnitude of the findings.
"Adolescence is such a time of opportunity," said Dr. Iris Borowsky, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. "It's very disturbing to me that there is this sizable minority of youth who do not think they have a long life in front of them."
Researchers aimed to test the "I'm going to live forever" theory, looking at about 20,000 teens grades 7 to 12 over three years -- 1995, 1996 and 2001 -- and asked them if they had a 50/50 chance or less of living to 35.
Some of the views are driven by reality, particularly for youth in poor neighborhoods, said Freya Sonenstein, director of the Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"Kids are smart, they can see there are realistic barriers to obtaining some of these objectives," she said. But parents, teachers and doctors need to encourage children to realize their lives hold promise, she said.
In fact, some youth eventually become more optimistic. More than half of teens with negative views became more positive over time, researchers found.
That nugget of encouraging news should be a sign to pediatricians to screen their patients about their outlook on the future, Borowsky.
It can be as simple as asking "What do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to go to college?" and using the answers to alert others if the child is doing something risky that could endanger their health, she said.
Meanwhile, parents, teachers and anyone close to a teen should work to drive home a sense of hope, she said.