Teens & Exploration: A Double-Edged Sword

Researchers from New York University, University of Miami, and the University of California, Los Angeles collaborated on a study that analyzed the differing effects of exploration on adolescents and adults. Exploration, in this context, is defined as, “the action of traveling in or through an unfamiliar area” (Oxford). Continue on to learn the results and some tips to help teens explore safely and smartly.

Exploration is a universal happiness. We all get a jolt of adrenaline when we visit a new place. The fresh sights, sounds, and scents send our brain into sensory overload, trying to take in all we can from the never-before-seen scenery. This pleasant feeling doesn’t dwindle with age, but the frequency of our explorations does. Results from the study found that teenagers became more exploratory as they aged; not shockingly, they are more likely to visit new places than all other age groups. As adulthood gets more complicated, people have less time to venture into new territory – but making time for exploration could be one of the keys to happiness.

The study found that, regardless of age, people reported more positive moods on the days they explored versus the days they stayed at home. Even more, people with higher levels of exploration had larger networks of friends. Researchers specifically discovered a positive correlation between teen exploration and social connectivity. Adventuring into unknown territory can be a strong bonding mechanism for teenage friends. This positive emotional feeling of connection and belonging among peers led researchers to believe that exploration during teenage years can be an adaptive function.

However, that doesn’t mean that exploration is inherently positive. Exploring the right destinations with the right people can surely strengthen social relationships, but exploring the wrong destinations with the wrong people can do the opposite. Researchers discovered another positive correlation, this time between teen exploration and risky behaviors. The adolescents who more frequently explored their environments also reported a higher number of risky behaviors, some of which include drinking, drug use, and gambling. The two coinciding correlations make sense as teenagers often perform risky behaviors with their friends as a bonding tool; many teens will sneak out together, go to parties, and try illicit substances as a way to retaliate against their caretakers, “seem cool,” and/or fit in by succumbing to peer pressure. Pushing boundaries comes naturally to teenagers as they’re starting to figure out what’s right and wrong.

“While risky behaviors undoubtedly pose challenges, a healthy amount of exploration is important, particularly as individuals become adults, gain independence, and form their identities,” says Catherine Hartley, senior author of the study and an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology.

Exploration is a double-edged sword because, on one hand, it can be a catalyst for social connectivity, good moods, and teenage friendships. However, on the other hand, exploration can lead to dangerous situations if not done carefully and with the right group. To help your teen explore cautiously, share these tips:

  • Making friends is a wonderful experience, but traveling to new destinations with new people is risky. If you’re going to a new place, always take one trustworthy, long-time friend with you.
  • Always tell an adult where you’re going.
    • If possible, share your location or turn on the Find My iPhone app if you have it. This way, an adult always knows where you are and can come get you if anything bad happens.
  • Do not purchase or accept any substances. Exploration itself is enough of a high on its own!

We at SMA send major kudos and a huge thank you to NYU’s Catherine Hartley and Alexandra Cohen, UM’s Aaron Heller, Travis Reneau, and William Villano, and UCLA’s Natalie Saragosa-Harris for conducting this important research. If you’re interested, you can read their study here.

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