From unsafe sex to binge drinking, illicit drug use and dangerous driving, risk-taking behaviour is part and parcel of many young men’s lives.
Not all risks have negative outcomes, of course — some can lead to personal growth and development — but many have worrying consequences, including injury, addiction and even death.
But before we dive in even further, we should define what we mean as ‘young’.
The definition of ‘young’ isn’t set in stone, however for this article, we will follow the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s definition as those aged 12–24. This is consistent with the age breakdowns for the National Youth Information Framework and complements the Children’s Headline Indicators.
This period of a person’s life represents adolescence — the time after the onset of puberty when a person develops from a child into an adult. Adolescence is characterised by rapid changes in physical, cognitive and social development, beginning with puberty and ending in the acquisition of adult roles and responsibilities, according to the Australian Journal of General Practice.
Why adolescents often take more risks
Adolescence often results in young people being exposed to adult activities with limited parental supervision, like drinking alcohol, driving, or engaging in sexual activity.
The Raising Children Network says it is “natural” for this age group to seek new experiences, as young people “explore their own limits and abilities, as well as the boundaries you set. Some young people really love the ‘rush’ of thrills, risks and adventure. And most teenagers want to express strong personal values and a sense of themselves as individuals.
“It’s all part of their path to accepting responsibility, forming identities and becoming independent young adults.”
There are various reasons why young people take risks; one study found that sensation-seeking and peer pressure were significant predictors of risk-taking behaviour in young adults, while another found poor emotional regulation was a key factor.
Young men: More likely to take risks?
It’s difficult to categorically state how much more likely young males in Australia are to take risks than other population groups. However, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Australian Burden of Disease Study, 2022 — which measures the impact of diseases and injuries on a population — found males aged 15-24 were overrepresented in terms of mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and injuries (including car accidents). Risk-taking behaviour is likely to play a role in those figures, although it’s unknown as to what extent.
Karen Donnelly, Vice President of the Australian Association of Psychologists Inc, says young men do generally take more risks than other population groups.
“Risk-taking is a common behaviour among teenagers and young people, and particularly among young men,” she says.
“Risk-taking is typically defined as behaviours where there is the potential for an immediate reward or thrill at the expense of future benefits. Young men are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as reckless driving, substance abuse, binge drinking, unprotected sex, extreme sports/activities, gambling, sexting and other risky uses of social media.”
However, it's important to note not all young men (or males in general) engage in risky behaviours — each person’s risk-taking tendencies vary due to factors including personality traits, social support, and life experiences.
Donnelly says there are several factors that spur young men to take risks, including:
- Sensation-seeking: Young men are more likely to seek new and exciting experiences that provide a thrill. This sensation-seeking behaviour is linked to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for pleasure and reward in the brain
- Peer pressure: Young men are often influenced by their peers to engage in risky behaviours, as they want to fit in and be accepted by their social group. Being part of a social group is very important for young people as they try to develop independence and autonomy from their family
- Overconfidence: Young men tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the risks associated with their actions. This is because they have a sense of invincibility; young people tend to see death as a long way off and other negative outcomes or injuries as less likely to impact them as they feel healthy, fit and indestructible
- Emotional regulation: Young people often have difficulty regulating their emotions, which can lead to impulsive decision-making. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and impulse control, is not fully developed until the mid-20s
- Masculinity: Young men are often socialised to believe that risk-taking is a sign of masculinity. This can lead to a desire to prove oneself and take risks to demonstrate courage and strength
- Testosterone: Studies have suggested that testosterone may influence risk-taking behaviour in both men and women. In men, higher levels of testosterone have been associated with increased risk-taking behaviour, such as engaging in activities like skydiving or bungee jumping and taking financial risks
How can young men be encouraged to take less risks?
Parents, educators, healthcare providers and peers can all play a role in helping young males understand the risks associated with their behaviour.
Donnelly says by understanding the psychology of risk-taking in young men, we can help them make better decisions and lead healthier, happier lives.
Some of her tips include:
- Providing young men with education and awareness programs about the risks associated with certain behaviours — such as drug use, unsafe sex, and driving recklessly — can be effective in reducing risk-taking behaviour. Such programs can be delivered in schools, online or via community agencies
- Peer mentoring and support programs are effective in reducing risk-taking behaviour in young men. These programs usually involve pairing young men with older mentors who can offer guidance and support and are run through a variety of organisations including the Top Blokes Foundation
- Offering positive reinforcement for positive behaviours and accomplishments can be an effective way to reduce risk-taking behaviour. This can include rewards, recognition, and praise for making safe and responsible choices
- Parents can play a critical role by encouraging open communication, setting clear expectations and boundaries, and modelling safe and responsible behaviour
- Learning how to manage peer pressure can be vital. It helps to plan ahead and have some strategies ready to use when confronted with a pressured situation. Depending on the context, it’s usually best to be upfront with a confident “no thanks” or “maybe another time” before the individual or group gets too invested in the risky behaviour. Other tactics include using humour to deflect pressure or attention, changing the topic or trying a delay tactic such as “I’m sure I’ve got something on this afternoon, let me check and get back to you.” It helps to have a range of friends and belong to a few different peer groups, so you feel more confident when saying no to members of one particular peer group
- Learning good decision-making skills so when young men are faced with an invitation/decision to engage in a risky behaviour, they can run through a quick yet thorough decision-making process. Solid decision-making involves clearly identifying the issue/problem, gathering information, identifying benefits, risks and consequences, brainstorming solutions and choosing the option that best balances benefits versus risks
- Young men should get to know their values and life goals. If people understand their values and what they want to do with their lives, it helps them make decisions that support these values and goals. For example, if a young man wants to work in law enforcement or the military, he needs to keep in mind the risks of engaging in any behaviour that could lead to arrest or criminal charges and how this will risk his future goals
- Be a good mate by supporting others who say no to risky behaviours. We all need to encourage consent and the right for everyone to say no to things we aren’t comfortable doing. It's not ok for others to pressure, force, or trick anyone into doing things they don't want to do. Young men can also choose to avoid spending time with people who pressure others.
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that is effective in reducing risk-taking behaviour in young men. CBT focuses on helping individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to risk-taking. Therapy can also help young men become aware of the impacts of social and peer group pressure, irrational beliefs (e.g., about masculinity) and how to manage these issues when they arise.