Would You Abstain If You Thought You Were About To Die?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 4 2010 4:00 PM

Would You Abstain If You Thought You Were About To Die?

Adolescents are not known for reflecting upon their own mortality. They're supposed to run around robotripping and crashing cars into brick walls because they "think they're invincible" and thus incapable of risk/benefit analysis. But a recentish study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that teens are actually pretty morbid. When around 9,000 15- and 16-year-olds were asked "What is the chance that you will die from any cause in the next year?" and "What is the chance that you will die from any cause between now and when you turn 20?" they massively overestimated the likelihood of their own deaths. The mean responses were 18.6 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively, and the medians about half that. One in five teens put their likelihood of perishing soon at 50 percent. (The statistical death rate is .08 percent.) Adults do not overestimate their mortality to this degree. The obvious conclusion is that teens are innumerate as well as reckless. But they tend to be much more accurate at predicting the likelihood of other near-term life events, like whether they’ll get the flu.

I've been thinking about this because I'm writing a story about the way our expectations of lifespan affect they way we map out our lives, but it also ties into the sex-ed discussion. It is difficult to change adolescent behavior. Supporters of any kind of sex ed who say it "works" tend, I think, to have a generous definition of "work"-at least that’s what I took from the Kristin Luker book Hanna mentions . The perceived mortality numbers suggest that kids see a world full of lethal risks, of which sex is only one. "Adolescents need faith in their future so as to invest in their own human capital, by studying, working, and avoiding risky behaviors," say the researchers. "That faith may require both the belief that specific threats are low and the feeling that their world will protect them from unnamed threats." [Emphasis mine]


The suggestion is that alarmism can backfire. Much as I wish rainbow parties were real, our collective need to invent stories about carnal teens spiraling toward tragedy is probably not helping.


Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 5:47 PM Tale of Two Fergusons We knew blacks and whites saw Michael Brown’s killing differently. A new poll shows the gulf that divides them is greater than anyone guessed.
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 5:07 PM One Comedy Group Has the Perfect Idea for Ken Burns’ Next Project
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.