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The Brains of Emerging Adults, Risk Taking, and the Consequences for Camps
Risk management in the camp profession often means rigorous tests of equipment, detailed training for staff, and preventative measures to eliminate risk. Yet, we often fail to take into account the developmental stages of most staff and how this can impact the level of risk within the camp setting. Most summer camp staff are in their late teens and early twenties — a time of life that is becoming commonly referred to as "emerging adulthood." It is the time of life when many young people are creating their identity, exploring sexual relationships, and deciding on future life goals. It is also a time in life when brain development changes dramatically. The same brain development that makes adventure programming so tantalizing to younger teens is still at work for eighteen- to twenty-five-yearolds. The idea of experiencing risk — even perceived risk — of accomplishing something and developing greater competencies is a well respected and acknowledged part of adolescents and the camp profession. Yet, we often fail to take into account that most camp staff are still experiencing this same stage of brain development and thus often push to take risks and fail to account for consequences.
The following example highlights how staff 's risk taking can occur. Several summers ago, while on a whitewater rafting trip with a group of early teen campers, three staff members, all of whom were over twenty-one and were considered trip leaders, decided to jump from a seventyfoot bridge into the river. Bridge jumping had been a popular activity of the staff that summer and this particular bridge had been jumped on previous trips by some staff with no real consequences. As this was one of the last trips of the summer, these three particular staff members thought it was time to claim the experience for themselves. Instructing the campers to stay in the rafts (because it was obviously too risky for campers) the three trip leaders walked up to the road and across the bridge. Climbing over the railing, the first two staff members jumped and swam over to the rafts. The third staff member, a little hesitant, stayed on the bridge contemplating the jump. The campers and other two staff members provided encouragement and pointers, and finally the third trip leader jumped, slapping the water at an awkward angle. As she came to the surface it was immediately apparent something was wrong. The other two staff members swam over to assist her. She had shooting pain up her back and felt immobilized. Taking quick action, one staff member quickly hitchhiked to the vehicles and came back, providing transportation to the hospital. The other staff member remained behind to oversee the campers, who now would not be completing their trip as planned. The diagnosis was compressed vertebrae, which only time and pain medication could heal. However, the lifelong implication was one of chronic back pain and potential for future complications. The stunt brought an end to the staff member's summer, as she could not effectively work. Though not a life threatening injury, the consequences of this relatively minor action could have been dire for the individual, the campers, and the camp as a whole, had the injury been more serious.
What drove this bright, successful counselor to participate in the risky pursuit of bridge jumping? Why would any of the staff members, well aware of the risks of the river rafting trip and their responsibilities to the campers, choose to initiate such a risky activity? How can camp management prepare for and prevent the risk that is brought on through working with and employing "emerging adults"?
To understand why adolescents and emerging adults take risks, it is important to understand what is happening in their brain. As puberty begins, the prefrontal cortex also begins to develop at an amazing rate, paralleling brain growth in the first three years of life (Kuhn, 2006). The prefrontal cortex controls judgment, emotions, inhibition control, decision making, and abstraction. As adolescents mature, this part of the brain is rapidly expanding by creating new synapses between neurons that allow teens to think and respond on new levels. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex also goes through a pruning process in which neurons rarely used are discarded to increase efficiency in the brain.
Thus, brain research suggests that by late adolescence, teens have fewer but more efficient and effective neural connections than they did as a child (Kuhn, 2006). Leading adolescent researcher Ronald Dahl (2004) points out the paradox this creates in our view of adolescent development.
Why Do Young Adults Participate in Risky Activities?
Why do young adults participate in risky activities with little regard to consequences if they have the ability and capacity for reasoning and decision making?
Leading researchers in adolescent development suggest that it is the lack of socio-emotional control that often drives impulsive and risky behavior, not the lack of cognitive processes (Dahl, 2006; Steinberg, 2007; Steinberg, 2008). According to neuroscience, most teens have developed the same thought processes as an adult by age fifteen. This is evident within the camp industry as young adult counselors and staff members can be trained in job duties, keeping campers safe and entertained, and other camp procedures. They understand these procedures and frequently follow them all summer. Yet anyone who has been in the camp profession for any length of time can relate a story of a seemingly intelligent and well-trained counselor or trip leader participating in a reckless and ill conceived activity that ultimately endangers himself or herself and the campers in his or her care.
For adolescents and emerging adults, the cognitive changes in the prefrontal cortex are accompanied by changes in the socio-emotional networks of the brain. While the cognitive changes in the prefrontal cortex occur as teens mature and experience the world, the socio-emotional aspects of the brain change much more rapidly and become more assertive when stimulated. Within normal adolescent behavior, the socio-emotional aspects, impulse control and desire for risk, are controlled by the slowly increasing capabilities of the cognitive system. However, when encouraged by peers or influenced by emotion, the cognitive system will lose the proverbial battle and the socioemotional system can drive behavior that is unpredictable, erratic, and risky (Steinberg, 2007).
If we review the previous bridge jumping scenario, we can see how the socioemotional processes of the brain took over from the cognitive processes. It was the end of the summer and the three trip leaders were all familiar with each other. The pressure to participate in the bridge jumping was apparent from the first suggestion of it. With the pressure of peers and the enhanced pressure of campers cheering them on, none of the staff members could resist the urge to participate. The socioemotional process of peers overtook the controlling cognitive processes that were sending off warning bells about the consequences of such a risky adventure. This battle within the brain is evident in the one trip leader's hesitation to jump once she was left alone on the bridge without the influence of her peers. Furthermore, the quick return of cognitive processes in all of the staff is evident as, once the accident occurred, they jumped into action, following procedures covered in training.
How does the camp profession, with a focus on risk management, prepare the emerging adults employed for situations in which the socio-emotional processes overrule that which they logically know is the best course? Researchers suggest that, in light of the normative and biological processes at work in adolescents, there is little we can do except to eliminate opportunities for risk (such as increasing the driving age) (Steinberg, 2008). However, this is counterintuitive within the camp experience, where we try to encourage children, teens, and emerging adults to develop new competencies and leadership abilities through adventure activities that are dependent on a sense of risk — albeit safe risk. Furthermore, for most camp programs, hiring young people is not a choice but a necessity, constituted by their willingness to work long hours, their endless energy and enthusiasm, and their ability to relate to the children and teens attending camp.
Managing the Risk
With this in mind, the notion of staff risk taking needs to become a part of the conversation with staff on a daily and weekly basis, not just as a part of a training scenario during orientation. Directors also need to have an understanding of the normal biological processes that emerging adults are going through, both to screen potential staff members, and also to think preemptively about procedures and rules that may need to be in place to reduce unnecessary risk experiences. For example, many camps allow counselors to congregate at night after campers have gone to bed. By ensuring that an older, reliable adult is still supervising this time with counselors, providing some structure to the time, or eliminating it from the schedule, can eliminate the potential for activities to get out of hand.
Another option is ensuring a balanced staff made of adults and emerging adults. Providing the more experienced adult as a mentor to the younger staff can be beneficial, especially when staff members are away from camp. The older and more experienced adult is not undergoing the same biological changes as the emerging adult. Most adults are able to balance their socio-emotional processes and their cognitive processes, thus allowing them to plan for and control the level of risk they engage in and lead others to engage in. By pairing an adult with a younger counselor or trip leader, the pressure to participate in certain activities comes not from peers but from someone older and in greater control of what they do. Thus the expectation for behavior is produced by someone unwilling to undertake unnecessary risk activities and ensures that the younger staff member also relies on cognitive processes to drive their behavior instead of getting "caught up in the moment" with their peers.
Camp is a powerful experience for both the campers and the emerging adults employed. For young people it is a time when risk taking is encouraged through healthy adventure activities, when leadership abilities are cultivated, and when a growing competence can be exercised. It can also be a time when peers and emotions drive behavior to the point where cognitive processes are not always involved in decision making. Yet most emerging adults are able to learn and understand safety procedures and risk management plans and follow them. By further incorporating policies and procedures that take into account a staff member's changing brain development, we can continue to manage the risks and liability involved for campers, staff, and the camp industry.
Dahl, R. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities. Annals of New York Academy of Science, 1021, 1–22.
Kuhn, D. (2006). Do cognitive changes accompany developments in the adolescent brain? Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 1, 59–67.
Steinberg, L. (2007). Risk taking in adolescence: New perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 55–59.
Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78–106.
Maegan Lokteff is a doctoral student in human and family development at Utah State University. Her love for camp started in her late teens when she worked as an assistant cook at a summer camp. She has since been a counselor, trip leader, and director for summer and winter recreation programs. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.