In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Public Health Resources about Adolescent Risk-Taking
  • Overview of Adolescent Risk-Taking Behaviors
  • The Biopsychosocial Model of Risk-Taking

Public Health Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior in the United States
Jessica M. Sales, Charles E. Irwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0143


Adolescence is a developmental stage characterized by striking emotional, social, cognitive, and physical changes. For most adolescents, it is a period marked by rapid physiological changes, increased independence from family, prioritizing peer relationships, initiation of intimate partner relationships, identity formation, increased awareness of morals and values, and overall cognitive and emotional maturation. Despite the rapid growth during the adolescent period, the majority of adolescents cope successfully with the physical, cognitive, and emotional changes during this time period. In addition to the growth seen during adolescence, it is also a developmental stage recognized for turmoil and challenges, partly due to increased exploration and risk-taking behaviors typical of adolescence. Risk-taking behaviors are considered to be a normative part of adolescence, but adolescent risk-taking behaviors are often concerning to parents, peers, teachers, clinicians, researchers, and society because these actions often endanger adolescents’ current and future health and well-being.

Public Health Resources about Adolescent Risk-Taking

Adolescent risk-taking is concerning because of the danger it can pose, but also because the behaviors established during adolescence often persist into adulthood. The potential long-term consequences of engaging in the most prevalent adolescent risk-taking behaviors include substance abuse, cancers associated with tobacco use, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, obesity or other health problems caused by problem eating (i.e., eating disorders), and serious criminal activity. Several resources are useful for obtaining timely statistics pertaining to rates of adolescent risk-taking and public health outcomes associated with adolescent risk-taking. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which monitors six types of health risk behavior that contribute to leading causes of morbidity and mortality among adolescents. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) is a longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of adolescents, complemented with biological data, in the United States from 1994 until 2008. The Monitoring the Future study is an ongoing, cross-sectional study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of adolescents and young adults in the United States. The World Health Organization has a website operated by the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health, which offers global adolescent behavior and health statistics. Further, the recent report Institute of Medicine and National Research Council 2011 is an excellent review of the topic. Also, Evans, et al. 2005 presents information on how mental health issues relate to healthy and unhealthy development in adolescents.

  • Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health.

    NNNThis department of the World Health Organization (WHO) was established in 2011 to take the lead in WHO’s systematic efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to maternal, child, and adolescent health. This site provides global data on adolescent health and behaviors.

  • Evans, D. L., E. B. Foa, R. E. Gur, et al. 2005. Treating and preventing adolescent mental health disorders: What we know and what we don’t know. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/9780195173642.001.0001

    NNNThis book reviews adolescent mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, substance use, and suicide that pose risks for healthy adolescent development.

  • Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2011. The science of adolescent risk-taking: Workshop report. Committee on the Science of Adolescence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    NNNThis report reviews, in an easily digestible manner, the current state of the science pertaining to the adolescent period of development and how changes during this period influence unhealthy risk-taking.

  • Monitoring the Future.

    NNNEach year, Monitoring the Future has surveyed a nationwide samples of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students. In addition, annual follow-up surveys are mailed to a sample of each graduating class for a number of years after their initial participation. Tables and figures are posted on the site with survey findings annually.

  • National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).

    NNNAdd Health combines longitudinal survey data on adolescents on social, economic, psychological, physical well-being and behaviors, in addition to biological data on sexually transmitted infection, genotypes, and indicators of metabolic syndrome and immune functioning. The Add Health data are available through a public use and restricted contractual use datasets.

  • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS).

    NNNThe YRBSS actively monitors six types of health risk behaviors among US adolescents: behaviors contributing to unintentional injuries, risky sexual behaviors, substance use (tobacco, alcohol and other drugs), poor dietary and physical activity behaviors. Site provides fact sheets, searchable databases, and other resources.

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