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Why Young People Ignore Health Warnings

Today and tomorrow I will be on local CBC Radio stations across Canada talking about why young people often don’t heed warnings about health risk. According to new research out this week, it may not be that they are ignoring the warnings, but rather that their immature brains are not able to process the information the way an older adult would.

Here’s a summary of the study that was released by the researchers themselves:

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Campaigns to get young people to stop smoking may be more successful by focusing on the positive benefits, such as having more money and better skin, rather than emphasising negative outcomes like increased disease risk, a study from Wellcome Trust researchers suggests.

Researchers at UCL (University College London) asked volunteers aged between nine and 26 to estimate how likely they think they are to personally experience a range of adverse life events, such as being involved in a car accident or getting lung disease. They then showed the participants the actual statistics for such events and noted how each adjusted his or her beliefs after learning that the risk was higher or lower than their own estimate.

The results show that younger participants were less likely to learn from information that shows them that the future is bleaker than expected. In other words, even when they know the risks they have difficulties using that information if it’s worse than they thought it would be. In contrast, the ability to learn from good news remained stable across all ages.

“The findings could help to explain the limited impact of campaigns targeted at young people to highlight the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risky behaviors” said leading author, Dr. Christina Moutsiana. The authors suggest that reframing information to highlight beneficial outcomes of desired behaviors, such as the positive effect of reduced alcohol consumption on sports performance, rather than the dangers of undesired ones, could have a greater impact.

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When it comes to communicating risk to younger people, it may be more effective to present the information in a positive rather than a negative way. For example, instead of warning a teenager that smoking can lead to cancer, heart disease, and a shorter lifespan it may be more effective to say, “If you choose not to smoke you will feel better, breathe better, and perform better when you play your favorite sport.”

We also know that young people (and teens in particular) care deeply about what their peers think and do. So as a parent you may be able to help your child make better health choices by de-normalizing bad behavior. Using the smoking example again, you can research the statistics and then tell your child quite honestly that most people in their age group do not smoke, so smoking is not a ‘normal’ behavior. This would hopefully exert positive peer pressure to help your child choose not to smoke.

For more resources to help keep your child smoke-free, see: http://teen.smokefree.gov/

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