Most adolescents progress to adulthood with relatively little difficulty, experiencing excellent physical health and strength and not engaging in behaviors that put themselves or others at risk. Others, however, take many sorts of unhealthy risks—in their sexual behavior, in driving, in substance use, in criminal activity—or experience emotional distress or mental health disorders. For a substantial number of adolescents, the consequences are severe: they may limit a young person’s opportunities to grow into a productive adult, they are the source of lifelong health problems, and they result in a significant risk of injury and death for adolescents.3

Many adolescent risk behaviors—particularly poor driving, either with or without concomitant use of alcohol or illicit substances, and crime—also put others at risk, and all of these factors together make the prevention of risk behaviors in adolescence an important public health issue. Risky adolescent driving illustrates well the seriousness of the public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three deaths among teenagers is caused by a motor vehicle crash, which translates into 4,544 deaths among 16- to 19-year-olds in 2005, in addition to the deaths of others involved in the crashes caused by adolescents. These statistics do not capture injuries or other damage, nor do they reflect the economic cost—the cost of all crashes involving drivers ages 15 to 20 in 2002 was $40.8 billion (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2003).

Researchers have produced a substantial body of work on the biological and psychological changes that occur during adolescence, as well as the family, peer, and cultural influences that shape adolescents’ lives in important ways. This evidence—as well as the evidence-based practice of health care practitioners and others who work with adolescents—can guide current and future efforts to promote healthy behavior and also to prevent risky behaviors that are prevalent during this stage of development. The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council formed the Committee on the Science of Adolescence, with the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (ACF), the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The committee planned and convened a series of three public workshops in 2008 and 2009 to review the science of adolescence from a


The definition of developmental stages is an evolving process and some researchers have argued for identifying emerging adulthood—a time between physical maturation and fiscal independence—as a distinct phase. The workshop series focused on adolescence as it is generally understood currently—that is, the stage from the end of childhood and beginning of puberty to the cusp of adulthood, or approximately the late teens and early twenties.

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