NN spoke with the following experts about the drivers behind these risky decisions:
- Hannah Schacter, an assistant professor and developmental psychologist at Wayne State University
- Ben Locke, the senior director for Counseling & Psychological Services at Pennsylvania State University
- Mary Karapetian Alvord, director of the private practice Alvord, Baker & Associates who mostly counsels children, teens and young adults.
All three experts know college students well. Schacter teaches them; Locke counsels them on campus; Alvord is their psychologist back at home.Collegiate life doesn’t look at all like what it used to, but many of the exciting firsts college promises — freedom, independence and friendships — are still there, and they’re still luring students to act in ways that can expose them or others to coronavirus, they said.
Teens are wired to take risks
There’s some truth to the teenage stereotype of risk taking. Young adults are more prone to make in-the-moment decisions because they’re wired that way.During adolescence and into adulthood, the brain region most sensitive to social rewards — the amygdala — develops at a much faster rate than the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational, consequence-driven decision making.
That imbalance may drive them to make decisions others deem risky, like visiting friends or attending a party, Locke said.
“Their decision making … is more about ‘what’s in the moment, what am I missing out on, what is the thing that would make me happiest in this moment?'” he said.
Teens are also particularly sensitive to the potential rewards of risky decisions at this stage in their life. It’s not that they don’t understand the negative consequences, but they struggle to regulate those impulses that lead them to take risks because the potential reward is too great, said Schacter, who leads a lab at Wayne State University on adolescent relationships.
“It’s this combination of being restricted from social contact for a while at an age where spending time with peers is so essential to development, to making teenagers feel good, and so, there’s some sort of calculation going on where the perceived benefit — ‘I get to spend time with friends’ — seems to be outweighing the potential costs,” Schacter said.
When you plop students back on campus after a spring and summer spent cooped up in their childhood bedrooms, many of them will take those opportunities to connect with their friends and strangers. Their fear of the virus may be overtaken by their eagerness to connect, she said.
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