Pub talk will sort out which teens go too far with risky behaviors

Not all teenagers engaging in risky and dangerous behavior are destined for drug addiction or a life of crime. Identifying those who are at risk is what’s important.

That’s the message and the challenge that Atika Khurana, an associate professor in the University of Oregon’s College of Education, will lay out in a Quack Chats pub talk Wednesday, May 8.

“Adolescence is not a period of crazy risk-taking,” said Khurana, who also is director of graduate programs in the college’s Prevention Science Program. “Some amount of risk-taking in adolescence is actually normative and adaptive. It is necessary for adolescents to gain new experiences that help the still-developing brain build on what is useful and prune out the undesirable. If anything, as a society, we need to figure out ways to allow adolescents to experiment and explore, but in relatively safe contexts.”

Her talk, “The Impulsive Risk-Taking Teenager: Myth or Reality?” will begin at 6 p.m. at the Ax Billy Grill & Sports Bar, on the third floor of the Downtown Athletic Club, 999 Willamette St. Admission is free. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.

It's time to challenge the stereotype about adolescents having a universal imbalance between the reward regions of their brains and their ability to control their impulses, Khurana said. Only a subset experiences a significant imbalance or mismatch and is at risk for unhealthy forms of risk-taking with adverse long-term consequences.

“This is the group that needs support and we need to identify them early on,” she said. “What are the characteristics that define this at-risk population, and what kind of supports are needed to help them head off any progression toward drug addiction or other health-compromising behaviors?”

Difficulties in impulse control, she noted, are detectable at younger ages. As these children enter adolescence, they are much more likely to experience an imbalance in the context of a rising sensation-seeking drive. Others, she said engage in exploratory risk-taking that is a normal part of adolescence.

Khurana will discuss patterns of adolescent risk-taking and the role of impulse control in predicting experimentation versus progression on risk-taking trajectories.

To learn more about upcoming Quack Chats, see the Quack Chats section on Around the O. A general description of Quack Chats and a calendar of additional Quack Chats and associated public events also can be found on the UO’s Quack Chats website.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications