October 26, 2017


Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. By Jess P. Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H. Tarcher/Perigee. $26.

     Filled with descriptive insight but lacking in realistic prescriptive recommendations, Jess Shatkin’s Born to Be Wild is an attempt to get beyond facile clichés about risk-taking teenagers and figure out why teens really do some of the things that their elders (all formerly teens) find hard to accept or in some cases even believe. Teens, according to child and adolescent psychiatrist Shatkin, are engaged in a nearly continuous (or at least continual) process of inner-directed wilding, a kind of out-of-control behavior that Shatkin says is hard-wired and important for species survival. Rather than considering themselves invulnerable, Shatkin says, teens overestimate their vulnerability substantially – to pregnancy and sexually transmitted illness, for example – and behave in risky ways anyway. Something other than a feeling of being able to make it through anything unscathed must be operating, the author says.

     In addition to its subtitle, Shatkin’s book has a surtitle, “Decoding the Adolescent Brain, Ages 12-26,” and does a better job of fulfilling the promise of that phrase than it does in showing “how we can help keep them safe.” Much of the book uses the language of brain science to explain behavior. “Brain imaging confirms that the adolescent amygdala, or threat detection center, is more active when they are shown possibly dangerous cues like a fearful facial expression.” “The adolescent brain has been fine-tuned by evolution and is no accident. It’s not an incomplete or insufficient adult brain. The adult brain is the gold standard for adults, not for adolescents.” “Remember that dopamine is released into our reward center, the ventral striatum, when we try something new that we like and each time thereafter when we anticipate that behavior. …Because the dopamine system of an adolescent is at its pinnacle and will never be this responsive again, novelty really rocks their world.”

     Shatkin’s point is that adolescent behavior that adults find incomprehensible, or so dangerous that it seems to indicate a belief in one’s own immortality, is in fact a genetic expression of evolution. For one thing, “adolescents tolerate ambiguity better than adults and children; that is, adolescents may be more comfortable taking risks when they lack complete information and are uncertain about the possible outcomes.” This is simply a more-elegant way of saying adolescents do not think they are invulnerable—instead, they do not think at all (or at least to any significant degree) before engaging in behavior correctly perceived by adults as risky.

     Shatkin makes this argument at length and in several different ways, to an extent that first becomes convincing and then borders on the repetitive. By the time that happens, readers will be hungry for “how we can keep them safe” – but thoughtful readers are likely to wonder if keeping adolescents safe runs counter to millions of years of evolutionary adaptation and is therefore, by definition, a losing cause. Shatkin will have none of that. He says that just because something is hard-wired into the adolescent brain does not mean it is impossible to mitigate impulses that had adaptive value in the dim past but are now likely to lead to highly undesirable outcomes. So Shatkin argues, completely unrealistically, that all that is needed is fundamental change in (Western and specifically American) society. Schools, parents and society as a whole must refocus on areas such as social learning (socialization being so crucial in adolescence), art (channeling expressiveness), group problem-solving (positive cooperative behavior), emotional as well as intellectual IQ – and establishing limits and boundaries through emphatic use of the word “no” as and when necessary. Society must change; parenting must change; schools must change. And this is a recipe for hopelessness, since anyone capable of paying attention to Shatkin’s book is equally capable of figuring out that these change-the-world prescriptions are impossible to bring to fruition – not even Shatkin himself can say how these things are supposed to happen, just that they should happen. And it is facile to say that of course change always starts at home, in the family. Shatkin mistakes his cozy life in New York City, with a traditional nuclear family of a wife and two teenage children, for a template that can be used by single parents, teens who themselves have children, underprivileged and financially stressed families, people living in areas far from urban conveniences, and so forth. Shatkin does acknowledge some of these factors, but from an erudite/urban perspective rather than that of someone genuinely familiar with them. Born to Be Wild is, from that same perspective, a well-argued, well-researched and well-written analysis – indeed, so well-argued and well-researched that readers are entitled to come to the inescapable conclusion that there is no practical way to keep teenagers safe, no matter how much parents may wish to do just that. In fact, in a passage that Shatkin clearly does not intend to be fraught with irony, he writes, “Certainly, many adolescent humans have died because they were driven by their emotions to take risks, and we owe a great debt to these risk takers for allowing our species to live on. Without someone willing to kill an elephant for food or find new territory, we would have gone extinct long ago.” We do not wish our adolescents to be among those sacrificing themselves for the good of the human race, but Shatkin’s analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that, in the absence of a complete societal overhaul, there is little that can be done proactively and protectively.

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