One of the most common types of risk-taking behavior among adolescents in the Western world is the use of alcohol, which has been shown to be related to car accidents, drug abuse, unwanted sexual experience, delinquency, and violence (e.g., Boyd, Howard, & Zucker, 1995; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Although adolescents have been taught about health risks through a wealth of educational programs, they continue to engage in this risky behavior (see overview in Schinke, Botvin, & Orlandi, 1991; Tobler & Stratton, 1997; Welte, Barnes, Hoffman, & Dintcheff, 1999).
Despite important research on drinking and preventive work with children and teenagers, few have asked young people themselves how they understand the risks they face in using alcohol and other substances. Also, few have studied the different developmental ways in which adolescents understand and make meaning of the risks to themselves and their relationships associated with their drinking or substance use (Selman & Adalbjarnardottir, 2000). It is essential to understand this relationship in order to foster reflective behaviors among children and adolescents that may protect them in risk situations.
In focusing on cognitive approaches, which emphasize thought processes, researchers have examined adolescents' perceptions of various health risks. For example, several studies have explored the relationship between adolescents' knowledge of health risks and their own risky behavior in real-life situations. In general, it has been found that adolescents do not seem to relate their knowledge about risks to their own risk-taking behaviors, whether they involve smoking, drinking, driving, or sex (e.g., Gerrard, Gibbons, & Bushman, 1996; Severson, Slovic, & Hamson, 1993; Smith & Rosenthal, 1995). Adolescents know the risks of using substances; they know it can affect their physical and mental health, their families, and future plans. Yet this knowledge does not seem to discourage them from engaging in risk-taking behaviors. In fact, for the past five decades increasing numbers of adolescents have been using substances, and at an earlier age (Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1995).
Several researchers within the cognitive tradition have attempted to understand this gap between knowledge and behavior. The focus has been on how adolescents' beliefs and cognitions relate to their behavior, with the basic assumption that risk perceptions represent aspects of individual belief structure and cognition that "enter into decisions" about substance use (Severson et al., 1993, p. 177). Cognitive processes, such as adolescents' perceptions of susceptibilities, severity, benefits, and costs, have been shown to be associated with their risky behavior (e.g., Harrison, Mullen, & Green, 1992; Newcomb, Fahy, & Skager, 1990; Virgili, Owen, & Severson, 1991). Those who engage in risky activities, for example, report less fear of the risk, less serious expected effects, more personal control, and less ability to avoid the activity (Severson et al., 1993). In an interesting longitudinal study, Gerrard and colleagues (Gerrard, Gibbons, Benthin, & Hessling, 1996) found that though adolescents were aware of the risks involved in smoking, drinking, and reckless driving, they would "manipulate their cognitions" about these risks in ways that facilitated their continuation of the behavior (p. 345). As they increase such behavior, they convince themselves that many others take the same risks, or they avoid thinking about the health and safety concerns. Another psychological approach uses hermeneutic practices or interpretive methods to analyze in-depth interviews with adolescents; the themes they raise reveal how they connect health risks to their social world (Lightfoot, 1997; Way, 1998).
Besides these important approaches, there is a need for a developmental perspective to elucidate the complex relationship between adolescents' perceptions of risks and their actual behavior. …