Teens become more explorative in their behavior as they get older, and are more likely to visit new places over time, a new study finds. The results also show that more research is associated with improved psychological well-being and larger social networks.
Notably, the researchers also found that adolescents who explored their natural environment more also reported a higher number of risky behaviors.
“While adolescent risk-taking is typically viewed as problematic behavior, we found that more research was also linked to greater social connectivity and emotional well-being,” said Catherine Hartley, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at New York University and the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science. “This suggests that risk-taking may have an adaptive function during adolescence.”
Previously, Hartley and Aaron Heller of the University of Miami reported that new and diverse experiences are associated with greater happiness and that this relationship is associated with a greater correlation of brain activity. Those findings, which appeared in the journal Nature Neuroscience, showed a link between our daily physical environment and our sense of well-being.
In the new Psychological Science work, Hartley, Heller and UCLA PhD student Natalie Zaragosa-Harris sought to gain a better understanding of teens and young adults’ exploration of their environment, how it relates to behaviors we often perceive as “risky” and what the psychological significance of this behavior might be.
Previous studies have suggested that, compared to children and older adults, adolescents and young adults tend to be more explorative and in search of novelty, whether it be trying new hobbies, trying new groups of friends, or visiting new places.
However, most studies of adolescent exploratory behavior are based on self-report or behavior in controlled laboratory settings, leaving open the question of whether increased adolescent exploration in the real world is apparent – when participants are in natural everyday environments.
To better capture these phenomena, the scientists measured the daily lives of 58 teens and adults (aged 13 to 27) in New York City, using GPS tracking to measure how often participants visited new locations over the course of three months. These measurements allowed them to record daily explorations based on movement. Based on this GPS data and self-reporting, the researchers found several striking patterns:
- There was a correlation between daily exploration and age, with individuals near the transition to legal adulthood (18- to 21-year-olds) showing the highest levels of exploration.
- Regardless of age, people reported better mood on days when they explored more, supporting the idea that exploration is linked to psychological well-being.
- People with a higher average level of exploration also reported larger social networks, as measured by the number of unique individuals the subjects interacted with through phone calls and direct-messaging platforms.
- Adolescents who explored their natural environment more also reported a greater number of risky behaviors (eg, gambling, heavy drinking, illegal drug use, etc.) – a link that is not clear in adults.
“These findings indicate an important role for research in supporting adolescent well-being and establishing social connectivity,” notes Hartley. “And while risky behavior undoubtedly poses challenges, a healthy amount of exploration is important, especially as individuals mature, become independent and shape their identities.”
The paper’s other authors included Alexandra Cohen of NYU and Travis Reneau and William Villano of the University of Miami.
This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (BCS-1654393).