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Texting While Driving: How Millennials Weigh Risky Behavior

A young guy texts while driving

Today’s post comes to us from Camilla Nord, who gives us an explanation of what’s going on in Millennials’ heads — literally — when they decide to text while driving, biking, walking, and more. Their risky behavior comes down to a constant evaluation of the costs vs. the benefits of being constantly connected, and, clearly, with many teens and 20-somethings admitting to texting while driving, they have decided that the positives outweight the negatives. Of course, personal experience makes the biggest difference, and as they gain experience in the long-term, their decisions may change.

Texting While Driving: How Millennials Weigh Risky Behavior

We all do it: shift our attention from working, talking, or walking to our cell phone when it buzzes, beeps, or otherwise alerts us of an incoming communication. But depending on where we are and what we’re doing, the costs of such a shift can have serious consequences — many of which we experience time and time again. Walking and texting? You might bump shoulders with a pedestrian coming towards you. Talking and texting? You might experience the psychological phenomenon known as “insertion,” accidentally typing the word you’re saying or saying aloud the sentence you’re typing. We multitask constantly with technology. How does it benefit — and how does it impair — the lives of teens to be continuously shifting attentional focus to a technological interruption?

I wake up every day to the vibration of my iPhone, then glance at it while I brush my teeth to keep up with overnight emails, then plug in my headphones for my bike ride into town, and then spend a large portion of the day texting — both for social and work purposes. Several times a week, I’m walking around the city, mapping my location to find out directions, listening to music, and fielding emails or texts (not usually while bicycling, though!). This isn’t atypical for adults, and even my constant technological activity probably pales in comparison to a lot of teens’ activities. It’s unsurprising, then, that many researchers have explored the risks associated with constantly being plugged in, the most immediate of which arises when you take this easily distractable, tech-savvy teen, and put her or him behind the wheel of a car.

A recent AT&T-sponsored study by an independent research group found that 97% of teens surveyed thought texting while driving was dangerous. Despite this awareness, 43% admitted to have done so in the past three months. This highlights a critical discrepancy in the minds of many Millennials: there’s a conscious knowledge of the risks involved in particular behaviours, yet oftentimes they decide nonetheless to engage in risky behaviour.

Millennials make informed choices — sometimes spontaneous ones, but choices nonetheless — about which risky behaviours to partake in and which ones to avoid. One of Ypulse’s recent studies found few teens take the risk of shoplifting, but many risk underage drinking. Some sort of cost-benefit analysis occurs, then, mandating which actions are considered ‘worth it’ and which ones aren’t.

The particular interest of these risky decisions in teens is twofold: first, it is culturally significant, potentially revealing the influence of our current economic climate, the effect of anti-smoking (or drinking, or drunk driving) legislation and marketing, and so on. Secondly, it reflects a relatively culturally-independent state of the adolescent brain which, as a plethora of studies have revealed, tends to make riskier, costlier decisions because of ongoing neural development. This was one of the first topics I ever wrote on in my nascent career in neuroscience, just when evidence began to hint that in adolescence the brain goes through a second ‘growth spurt’, if you will, similar to that of newborns (in reality, it’s more an elimination of excess pathways, but it has the same eventual effect: optimizing function). But I digress. The important issue is not why but what the effect of their actions are, and the short answer is: it’s mixed. There are serious costs of texting while driving (or bicycling, or even sometimes walking). One hopes that the significant proportion of teens taking this risk aren’t doing so on a highway or in rush hour traffic — but of course, some of them are.

Critically, Millennials also seem receptive to deterrent statistics: the constant anti-drinking information I was bombarded with as a teen in the U.S. might have been responsible for a later age of underage drinking among my peers and myself (say, aged 17 or 18 rather than 14 or 15, as is common in the UK, where I live now). Yes, on paper they’re both underage drinking, but in health terms, it’s better to have waited those extra years, both in terms of the propensity to develop alcoholism and in the damage that can be done to still-developing brain cells.

There’s a reason humans take risks: we’ve learned throughout our lives that certain risks are frequently rewarded, rarely costly. Even a high-risk activity like texting while driving, the vast majority of the time, will not result in an accident. Arguably more so than previous generations, Millennials are acutely aware of risks. This makes for a fascinating picture: a hyper-aware youth, constantly mentally calculating (consciously or subconsciously) the relative benefits of their risky behaviors. This seems to change not whether they engage in risky behavior, since most do or have done so, but which risky behaviors they choose to engage in. This discussion began with the hazards of technology use, but of course, these hazards are often outweighed by the enormous benefits of technology, both small (answering a text) and large (using a quitting-smoking app on your iPhone). Just like the teens, then, we must think about “the dangers of technology” as a cost-benefit analysis.

Millennials are inundated with information and communication from all fronts via the technology they use. Without a doubt, this facilitates learning, socializing, and countless other aspects of their lives. As articles written (mainly) by an older generation tend to suggest, though, this advantage comes at a price, and that price could be as small as less attention invested in a conversation or homework problem or as big as distraction at a critical moment while driving, leading to a deadly accident. It’s clear which side of the fence I fall on: I think the benefits outweigh the costs. But such a subjective judgement, based mainly on anecdotal, personal evidence is useless without data on how to guide adolescent risk-taking behavior. What we need is a study showing which deterrent information (such as anti-smoking advertising) works and why. Ideally, it could, over time, explore the decisions one group of adolescents make, and what impacts their weighing-up of various costs and benefits.

This discussion began from a slightly alarmist viewpoint, responding to statistics about the number of teens who text while driving, undoubtedly an extremely risky action. It is equally important, however, to look at the almost-unanimous number of teens reporting awareness of this risk. Millennials are extremely lucky to have information at their fingertips — literally — about the risks that they’re exposed to. They’re also decidedly unlucky, because this awareness brings with it a greater responsibility for their decisions, actions, and resulting consequences, both positive and negative. How this young awareness affects their lifelong decisions is a different question to that of short-term, immediate risk-taking behavior. It is my prediction that the information spread from Millennials’ technology use results in long-term benefits when it comes to learning from our mistakes. We’ve all taken risks, reaped the rewards, or paid the consequences. In the end, though it’s what we do with these experiences that counts.

About Camilla

Camilla NordCamilla is a returning YAB member who has finished her undergraduate degree at Oxford in 2011, where she studied physiology, psychology, and philosophy. Now, she’s 21 and studying for a Master’s degree at the University College London Institute of Neurology, where she hopes to do research in clinical neuroscience and neuropsychiatry. She grew up primarily in Washington, D.C., where she attended National Cathedral School, and has also lived in Budapest, Hungary for four years. When she’s not studying the brain, she is probably painting, practicing Bikram yoga, cooking vegetarian food, or thinking about manatees. When she IS studying, her favorite part of the brain is the basal ganglia, and her favorite neurotransmitter (those chemicals that shoot around the brain sending signals) is dopamine. The recent involvement of neuroscience techniques in product development and marketing has driven her interest in Ypulse, coupled with a lifelong love of writing — and, of course, a healthy obsession with pop culture.