July 13, 2009

A Surprising Number Of Teens Think They'll Die Young, Or Live Forever, Whichever Comes First

An unsurprising number of adults don't care either way.

CHICAGO - A surprising number of teenagers -- nearly 15 percent -- think they're going to die young, leading many to drug use, suicide attempts and other unsafe behavior, new research suggests.

The study, based on a survey of more than 20,000 kids, challenges conventional wisdom that says teens engage in risky behavior because they think they're invulnerable to harm. Instead, a sizable number of teens may take chances "because they feel hopeless and figure that not much is at stake," said study author Dr. Iris Borowsky

15% is surprising-- because it's smaller than I would have guessed, no?  How many teens did you know in high school who thought they'd die by 30 (their parents' age when they were 4...?) or 33 (Jesus?)?

The really surprising thing is the logic: how do they make the jump from thinking you'll die young, to using drugs?  Is it only those 15% who use drugs?  Do the majority of those 15% go on to use drugs?  etc.

How many teens think they will live forever?  Not like vampires, but how many can't imagine their lives three years into the future, let alone 30, and this finds expression in the sentence "I'm never going to make it to 35"?  It would be equally (in)valid to conclude, "teens belief that they will live forever leads to risky behaviors."


Borowsky said the magnitude of kids with a negative outlook was eye-opening. Adolescence is "a time of great opportunity and for such a large minority of youth to feel like they don't have a long life ahead of them was surprising," she said.

Yes, I'd expect someone of my generation to say something that obtuse.


Adolescence is supposed to be an identity Schrodinger's Cat: multiple simultaneous states which eventually collapse into only one.  The goal of adulthood is to let go of the other possible existences and to make the best of the one.  A successful adult is one who understands that it doesn't matter which life you ultimately pick, only that you live it well.  The same potential for, say, happiness exists whether you are a construction worker, porn actor, or wealthy industrialist.

Meanwhile, it is in no way contradictory for a teen to think he'll die young AND live forever; or that he'll become a chef AND be an infantry colonel; that he'll raise his kids on a farm AND roam the earth celibate like Kung Fu.

But the idea that kids are having multiple potential lives, simultaneously, doesn't sit well with adults, especially when the adult is more concerned with how the kid impacts their life, not the other way around.


As an aside:

The study suggests a new way doctors could detect kids likely to engage in unsafe behavior and potentially help prevent it, said Dr. Jonathan Klein, a University of Rochester adolescent health expert who was not involved in the research. 

Of course it does.  Because in the new era of healthcare, there's no money in the treatment, only in the detection.  Question: once detected, what do you propose we do about it?  It's a deadly serious question, I want a serious answer.  You can't give them Zoloft, they're not yet  "sick."  Will you put them into therapy against their will?  Monitor them?  Social services?  Outsourcing the parent?  It takes a village, etc?

You are witnessing the nationalization of parenting.

Question: why would a parent want their parenting outsourced?  Oh, yeah.


Does the study really show that kids who think they're going to die young engage in riskier behaviors?  No.  Not even close.

First, the trick of the study-- and it is most certainly a trick-- is to present the strongest data first, but report the weakest data in the press, and conflate the two. 

Here's the strongest data in the study-- not found in the press story:

In adjusted models, illicit drug use, suicide attempt, fight-related injury, police arrest, unsafe sexual activity, and a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS predicted early death perception at time 2 (1 year), time 3 (7 years), or both (adjusted odds ratios: 1.26-5.12)... Adolescent involvement in risk behaviors predicted a belief in premature mortality 1 and 7 years later.
See it?  I'd call this "Bait And Switch," but I already used that for another post title. Here, the data shows that kids that are already being risky will later on in life believe they are going to die young.  But the press reports it the other way.

Look at the study more closely, or once anyway, and you'll observe that

1. although 15% of kids said they probably wouldn't make it to 35, only 3% actually voted as having "no chance" or "probably would be dead."

2. Six years later-- when they're no longer adolescents-- only 17% of the 15% still thought they'd be dead at 35.

3.  There was no difference in actual death rates. 

In other words, very few kids actually believed they'd be dead, most kids grow up eventually, and it doesn't matter what they think.


Hard data for early pessimism predicting individual risky behaviors:

death prediction.JPGI'll grant you that predicting a suicide attempt makes sense; and I'll grant you that the relationship to HIV seems strong with no clear explanation.  But beyond that, there is very little you can predict from early pessimism; and certainly nothing that justifies the article quote at the top.

"Oh, the press misunderstood our study..."  Sure they did.

The best way to create a public health problem you can bill for is to allow a journalist to report your findings. 


"But even if the reporting isn't accurate, surely the data themselves are valid?  Numbers are numbers, right?" 

They used to be.

Here's an example: in the study, they make a big deal about separating out the races of the kids, because of course different races can have different perceptions about their futures.  Fine.  Meanwhile-- think about this-- they question as "adolescents" all kids grades 7 to 11.   Do you remember the gigantic difference between 8th grade and 10th grade, let alone 7 to 11?  Well, they can't.  To them, it's all just "adolescence."

One of you is right now thinking, "well, how could this study have been done better?"  You're asking that because you've been brainwashed: there was no need to do this study at all.  This is not a question that needed to be answered.  What if 100% thought they'd die by 35? Or 0%?  Do any of these results tell you anything?  This is another one of the quadrillion self-referential, running-in-place studies that constitute academic research.  They tell us nothing about the world around us, they are solely masturbation.
FYI, someone funded this study, and it wasn't Pharma.


But even masturbation can be beneficial if it is done with a pure and selfless heart.  So let's be fair: does this study and story contribute to the understanding and betterment of adolescents?

Turns out the answer is mocking laughter followed by scorn.  The researchers, and the press, have no actual interest in helping adolescents or even understanding them.  Their interests lie first in themselves, and the kids only in how they impact that interest.  For example, based on her comment, what Borowsky finds interesting about her study isn't the ability to predict future risky behaviors, but that kids don't share her optimism.  "Wow, would you look at that!" If all adolescents were optimistic about their future, she'd have thought that was completely normal.

Here's another example: the authors of the study cite references and make hypotheses about the causes or meaning of the kids' pessimism.  This is strange, and by strange I mean it figures, because when they did this study they could simply have asked the kids themselves.  It, apparently, never occurred to any of them.  That's precisely the point.

You might say, "well, maybe the study was such that they couldn't get kids' feedback..."  Then why do this study at all?  The core question everyone would want answered you don't even ask!

To trade a generalization for a generalization: they, The Dumbest Generation Of Narcissists In The History Of The World, does not care about their youth.  They care about them as a body, as a construct, but not as individuals, not as people with their own lives, hopes, wants, etc.  That's definitional narcissism, in case you thought you were on TMZ.com.

Oh, they care about them in societal or general terms.  "What should we do about these kids today?" the way someone might ask about penguin overpopulation or the quality of bottled water.  It's too much hard work to look at each individual kid, in the context of their own environment and their own lives-- hard work previously undertaken by parents, but as I've said we're in a new era-- and then deciding if there's any pathology.   It's much easier to use, as a shortcut, the extent to which a kid disrupts the life of the nearest adult.

Adults have virtually no interest in teens as human beings; they are voyeuristically consumed with knowing what they're up to, and love chatting about why they do things.  To them, understanding is parenting.  Let someone else do the actual work; they have a Time Magazine waiting.


One last example.  Teens like movies, they identify with characters, for better or worse sometimes those characters are the blueprints for their current or future identity.  In other words, the characters matter.

When Time did a story on Borowsky's study, this is the movie they chose to depict this new generation of pessimistic nihilists:

If you want to show how completely oblivious you are to the perspective of today's teens, this is how you do it.  Why not throw in Jethro Tull?  They didn't even make an attempt at finding a current reference.

I'll say that last part again, because it's the key: they didn't even make an attempt, because it wasn't important to them or their readers.




I'd think they didn't attem... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 3:46 PM | Posted by Mae: | Reply

I'd think they didn't attempt to make a current reference because their readers are (perhaps) generally in the age bracket that would understand the Heathers reference. Or they were lazy. Possibly both!

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You are a true piece of wor... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 4:57 PM | Posted by Kevin: | Reply

You are a true piece of work ! You are inspiring me to just say/write it as I think it-------like you----rather than risking forgetting I'm not really a reasonable Roman just because I'm in Rome.

Thank you Dr. Percy.

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Random question. How does ... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 5:18 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Random question. How does this collective narcissim differ from the standard adult vs kids generalization of "Something is wrong with kids these days" that seems to pop up between every generation?

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Jethro Tull???OK, ... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 5:38 PM | Posted by Rurald: | Reply

Jethro Tull???

OK, Dr Aqualung.

I like totally agree with the rest - awesome.

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Great piece. I should print... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 6:39 PM | Posted by Jim L.: | Reply

Great piece. I should print out section III and tape it to my bathroom mirror.

One quibble with:

You are witnessing the nationalization of parenting.
We're not witnessing it. It began 60 years ago and was pretty much wrapped up by the mid 80s.

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Adolescence is supposed ... (Below threshold)

July 13, 2009 7:30 PM | Posted by Joshua: | Reply

Adolescence is supposed to be an identity Schrodinger's Cat: multiple simultaneous states which eventually collapse into only one. The goal of adulthood is to let go of the other possible existences and to make the best of the one.

A good, to the point observation. And on a bit of a divergent note, a good lens for which to notice if someone is in a state of arrested development or not. There are a number of friends/acquaintances of mine, whether online or in real life, who every two or three months talk about how they are going through or "feel" as if they are about to go through a state of transition or change. This would have meaning if I read / heard it from someone once, and if there was, say, a major job loss or death involved, as opposed to five or six times a year from a single individual who is vaguely dissatisfied with everything. Quite often, it's written by people who bumble around from job to job and think about how much potential they have rather than concentrating on where they actually are and doing anything substantial to improve their life. When you're a kid, there's a million doors you can walk through. As you get older, you better damn well start picking one or two, unless you want to be working at the counter of Gulp'n'Blow at fifty still trying to figure out how to get that DJ gig together in order to bang imaginary twenty-something raver chicks, or maybe you'll start painting in oils next month--once you've got your bills sorted out--and magically get real good within a couple weeks of trying. Is this a borderline with no dominant personality telling them what to do, or a narcissist dawdling and dilly-dallying over a menu of identities?

I'm at least taking heart in the fact that a number of friends have sold or attempted to sell musical instruments over the past year. Perhaps money getting tight is a small splash of cold water in the face of narcissism? Selling tangible symbols of a future that's never going to happen is a good thing, right? Or is it just dumping the "rocker" identity for the "mature tightwad who realizes he was a failed wannabe rocker but now has wisdom, just like that guy in Behind the Music" identity?

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great post! thanks!... (Below threshold)

July 14, 2009 12:33 PM | Posted by the0ther: | Reply

great post! thanks!

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Hmm, you skipped from secti... (Below threshold)

July 14, 2009 1:39 PM | Posted by Kevin Smith: | Reply

Hmm, you skipped from section IV. to section VII.

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There is NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ... (Below threshold)

July 14, 2009 11:22 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

There is NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ... section VI.

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The Onion's take on blind s... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2009 12:18 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The Onion's take on blind studies:


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I only just found it and st... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2009 12:00 PM | Posted by Mike: | Reply

I only just found it and started digging in the archives but I really like your blog, yo.

You're a smart cookie. Keep it up.

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Now relate to males in midl... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2009 2:21 PM | Posted by donna: | Reply

Now relate to males in midlife crisis -- who are inspired to do studies like this one... ;^)

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"What should we do about th... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2009 4:53 PM | Posted by Chris: | Reply

"What should we do about these kids today?"

Very interesting post. Good job, but I want the missing section badly!

By the way, I thought you might be interested in this CME event "World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics " which is sponsored by University of California at San Diego.

This opportunity looks fabulous and good for clinicians with an interest in the latest advances in Psychiatric Genetics. They are going to cover the latest results in genome wide association studies, next generation sequencing, gene x environment interactions, epigenetics and many other aspects of psychiatric genetics.

The link is here:

Hopefully you will find it interesting.


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I can think of only one use... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2009 8:36 PM | Posted by BHL: | Reply

I can think of only one useful purpose of this study, and that's as proof of the deep and undeniable truths to be found in that '80s classic "Forever Young." It actually does contain the line "Let us die young or let us live forever...."

Otherwise, yeah, you've hit the nail on the head.

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It's not popular to discuss... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 9:09 AM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

It's not popular to discuss epistemology. You're like the only one. You should be writing about global warming.

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I can't read the whole stud... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 7:03 PM | Posted by Brenda Mayer: | Reply

I can't read the whole study because it requires a subscription.

But it looks like you are correct, it's BS. I strongly suspect Dr. Borowsky was either being disingenuous when she claimed to be surprised or she's had a sheltered life. I'm shocked only 15% were pessimistic.

I question how many "adolescents" are going to be completely forthcoming with an unfamiliar authority figure, anyway.

Besides, except for the bogus pessimism figure, teen suicidality and HIV/AIDS figures are already available through the CDC, along with their policy recommendations.

I can't tell who funded this, but it appears to me that somebody wants to screen kids and thus they needed something to screen for. Thus, OMG!, some 14 year olds can't imagine being 35!

As for your question regarding reducing the levels of unsafe behavior, I think the issue is too complex to be addressed by any one policy solution. What are the causes and conditions? Maybe it's just that kids do stupid stuff because they don't know better yet due to lack of life experience. If outsourcing parenting is the solution, an unfortunate number of parents would be a-ok with it.

These are all complex issues, with multiple factors involved, and no amount of screening will help anyone. Actually, now I'm getting a little angry about it, now that I've thought it over. It seems to me that whatever forms and checklists are devised may only alienate these "adolescents" if/when they see the ineffectiveness.

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"What's your damage, Heathe... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 6:42 AM | Posted by afreudtolove: | Reply

"What's your damage, Heather?"

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Geez, depressed teens? Real... (Below threshold)

September 17, 2009 5:44 AM | Posted by caeia: | Reply

Geez, depressed teens? Really? I had no idea that teens couldn't imagine themselves at 40. Or that teens were taking risks because of it.

Teenagers are an odd lot -- I remember being a teen, and it was almost cool to think that you had it bad, even though you had everything you needed. We live a lifestyle that would probably make emperors jealous, but the kids are "bored".

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"Random question. How does ... (Below threshold)

November 26, 2012 5:32 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by V-: | Reply

"Random question. How does this collective narcissim differ from the standard adult vs kids generalization of "Something is wrong with kids these days" that seems to pop up between every generation?"

It differs in that "Something is wrong with kids these days" is a result of Status Quo, in which the elders are projecting their childhood onto the kids. The adults feel pretty great about themselves, so clearly how things went when they were growing up is the best way, and any change from that is detrimental.
TLP's approach, however, analyzes people's behaviour, the recurring pattern of self-centeredness in people's view of the world nowadays, and draws conclusions from it.

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