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Adolescents And Risk-Taking: A 'Very Likely' Danger May Not Mean The Same To A Teen As To An Adult

In a finding that will surprise few parents, UC San Francisco researchers have shown that what adults say about the probability of harm from a risky behavior can have different - even opposite - meanings to teenagers.

"Those differing interpretations can have serious effects if a teen makes the wrong choice about a behavior, whether it's neglecting to take a needed medicine or experimenting with unprotected sex," said UCSF adolescent medicine expert Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD. She and her colleague Michael Biehl, MA, presented data from an ongoing study at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, May 3.

"Physicians and other health practitioners typically use probability terms like 'likely' to communicate risk," said Halpern-Felsher and Biehl in their presentation. "Often there's a very good reason: we don't know the precise percentage chance that a risky action will lead to trouble. But our data show that children, adolescents and even adults don't understand and interpret these terms as we would expect - not even terms like 'rarely' or 'never.' "

"If you give the same risk message to two people of different ages, they may walk away with different interpretations and may make different decisions," Halpern-Felsher said. That could mean, for example, that after a conversation with a physician, a parent assumes that her daughter has learned that the chance of getting a sexually transmitted disease from unprotected sex is high - after all, the doctor described it as "very likely." But the teenager may interpret the risk as much lower.

Alternatively, when parent and child listen to a doctor describe a treatment with a "small chance" of side-effects, the parent may interpret that probability as 1 out of 10 while the child may envision it much more fearfully - as perhaps 7 out of 10.

The researchers studied 5th graders, 7th graders, 9th graders and adults in their 20s, using questionnaires that measured the
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Contact: Janet Basu
jbasu@pubaff.ucsf.edu
415-476-2557
University of California - San Francisco
4-May-1999


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