Children and Adolescents Juvenile Justice Psychology

1 in 7 American Teenagers Think They’ll Die Young


In a brand new study published in the July issue of Pediatrics,
University of Minnesota pediatrics expert, Dr. Iris Wagman Borowsky, found that almost 15 percent of American teens believe they will die before age 35.

Dr. Borowsky also found that the adolescents who were the least hopeful that they would survive past 35, were the most likely to engage in risky behavior.

Those of us who have worked around at-risk kids have long noted that a hopeless kid is the one who is most likely to act out in dangerous ways. But seeing quantified the sheer numbers of American teenagers who believe that they will die young cannot help but shock us.

Dr. Borowsky arrived at her conclusions after she and her team analyzed reams of data collected by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, in which the attitudes and behaviors of 20,594 adolescents in 7th through 12th grade, were tracked over a three year period.

One of the reasons the study is important is that it topples a common fallacy that most kids engage in risk-taking behavior because of their naive belief that nothing bad will happen. The reality, Borowsky found, is actually quite the opposite—and far more complex.

“While conventional wisdom says that teens engage in risky behaviors because they feel invulnerable to harm [italics are mine], this study suggests that in some cases, teens take risks because they overestimate their vulnerability, specifically their risk of dying,” Borowsky said. “These youth may take risks because they feel hopeless and figure that not much is at stake.”

Nearly 25 percent of youth living in households that receive public assistance and more than 29 percent of American-Indian, 26 percent of African-American, 21 percent of Hispanic, and 15 percent of Asian youth reported believing they would die young—compared to just 10 percent of their Caucasian peers.

“Our findings reinforce the importance of instilling a sense of hope and optimism in youth,” Borowsky said. “Strong connections with parents, families, and schools, as well as positive media messages, are likely important factors in developing an optimistic outlook for young people.”

No kidding.

Borowsky noted specifically that the kids who believed they would die young were more prone to drug use or to acquire STDs.

Yet, this same model applies when we look at the likelihood of joining or staying in gangs.

In and around the gang world, the least hopeful kids are always the most deeply involved and the most dangerous—either to themselves or others.

“Hey, you gotta die sometime.…..” I’ve heard kids say right before they go do something life-theateningly stupid. These were the same kids who told me how they had already planned what they were going to wear to their own funerals.

It is for the above reasons that programs like “Scared Straight” and the ever more draconian juvenile laws that are aimed at getting young gang members or gang wannabes to “think twice”—are so entirely ineffective.

These strategies work wonderfully for the kids who don’t need them—the hopeful kids.

But if we want to help the kids who are the most at risk (and it seems according to Borokwsky and company, there are a great many of them) we need to find much more effective methods for infusing them with hope.


  • I agree somebody needs to do something about these robber barron, gavacho minute men and their draconian laws.

  • Most teens don’t have a lick of sense and most think that everyone over thirty is old. Radical Jerry Rubin told kids in the 1960’s, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” (Rubin was fifty-six when he died.) I saw a poll that asked how old they thought a man would be if their friend said that she was dating “an older man.” The most given answer – age 30.

    I wouldn’t have a lot of concern over this.

    What concerns me is that tax money was probably spent on a study proving that teenagers are idiots and that the researchers missed the obvious conclusion.

  • Quite coincidentally, the Pew Research Center released the results of a national survey on age and aging today; most adults over the age of 50 feel at least 10 years younger than their actual age but — get this — most respondents under the age of 30 believe that you’re old by the time you hit 60.

  • Surprise, Surprise

    It seems obvious that the kids who are participating in gang violence including murder, and attend numerous funerals of other children would be much more pessimistic about a long life for themselves. These children may have an accurate view of their longevity, when the “average life-span of a gang member is 20 years and 5 months”.

    Celeste, as I recall has attended close to 50 funerals of kids killed violently, which is a horrifyingly sad number of lives extinguished in their prime.

    The answer to the problem has nothing to do with “instilling a sense of hope and optimism in youth”, but it does mean building “Strong connections with parents, families, and schools”.

    Until children have actual families that replace gang families, this cycle will just get worse. But liberals can’t stand that idea of having the government pushing the idea of traditional families.

    Imagine the liberal backlash, if we taught in schools and legislated the importance of the nuclear family of a father and a mother.

  • Well-meaning social scientists can labor over all the studies they want, but the nature of adolescence doesn’t change. You could say it goes back to James Dean, but try Shelly, Byron, et al. Teenagers are natural existentialists, who not only think they’re invulnerable but imagine they don’t care if they live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse. Parents (& researchers) just don’t understand, Celeste …

  • “You could say it goes back to James Dean, Shelly, and teenagers who don’t care if they die -Parents and researchers just don’t understand, Celeste”

    Booze is still the best answer Celeste!

  • “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”

    James Dean

    (good call, decalicious)

  • “We need to read more poetry to these kids.”

    Or maybe as Decalicious suggests, they’re reading too much poetry. Actually I blame it on that jazz music (what do they call it these days ? “Hip hop?”).

  • I hate being on the same page as Woody – fucking hate it, even if it’s a joke – but if you watched the BET Awards and compare the wonderful O’Jays tribute segment with the great men themselves and Johnny Gill to the puke-worthy performances by degenerate scumbag Lil Wayne and mindless moron Drake I think this thing about the influence of some of these utterly clownish, nihilistic “artists” on the outlook of kids isn’t totally nuts. Don’t have a plan, but it’s a long way even from the most hardcore blues to the shameless, idiot antics of Lil Wayne and it ain’t pretty.

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