New study shows why teens take more risks online than young adults

study teens adolescents more risks online on computer
Most parents can probably tell you that teens may not make smart decisions when they’re online, especially the younger bracket. The internet is jam-packed full of interesting and highly inappropriate material that seemingly draw in the young and curious like the smell of hot, fresh donuts in the morning. But apparently, we need a study to reinstate this fact, and that’s just what the United Kingdom’s University of Plymouth has done.

The study was led by Claire White from the School of Psychology, and surveyed a group of teens between the ages of 13 and 17, and a group of young adults between the ages of 18 to 24. The team set out to discover why the first group tends to take more risks online than the latter group, and provided each with access to an online quiz gambling scenario.

This “scenario” was provided in two ways: what each player could win, and what each player could lose. After the individuals of each group went through both scenarios, the team determined that, yes, the younger group demonstrated riskier behavior. It all boils down to experience: the more memories and experiences you have, the more likely you will take time to weigh the consequences.

The risk-taking decisions in the younger group stems from Fuzzy Trace Theory. This defines two memory processes: remembering the general meaning of things (gist), and remembering things exactly as they are, such as word-for-word (verbatim). Thus, the latter memories are more specific than the former, such as verbatim memory would remember the actual word “cat” whereas gist memory would remember everything associated with cats, like claws, meowing, and stinky litter boxes.

Thus, consider both sets of memories as a growing library. The book shelves of adolescents are rather bare while young adults have a larger collection to access. Young adults have many shelved gist memories to rely on whereas adolescents don’t have a foundation to draw upon the gist of “risky situations.”

“These results were partially linked to sensation seeking, but more fully explained by Fuzzy Trace Theory — the notion that people process information in both a verbatim (quantitative) and gist (qualitative) fashion,” said Amy McSweeny, the university’s media and communications officer.

The study also revealed that the adolescent group wasn’t swayed by the different set of questions (win versus lose). However, the young adults clearly considered their option not to gamble when the potential losses were presented. Young adults make thoughtful, intuitive decisions whereas adolescents quickly calculate risks based on their limited experiences.

“Our findings provide important and novel insights into ways in which online safety training and risk communication is understood by people of different ages, and so how experts and campaigners can tailor their information to keep everyone safe online,” White said in the new report.

The report appears in the December edition of Decision, an American Psychological Association publication. It points out that websites and online services need to provide information that’s easily understood and processed by young teenagers, and explain possible risks that are easy to remember and retrieve later. These same sites and services should also relay the same information in a more adult manner for the latter, older group.

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