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Becky Mildon enjoys risky sports like skydiving, but she prefers to do them through an established organization with professionals and safety equipment on hand.
Becky Mildon enjoys risky sports like skydiving, but she prefers to do them through an established organization with professionals and safety equipment on hand.

The risks and rewards of thrill-seeking with a teenage brain Add to ...

Before she plunged 30 metres through the air on her first bungee jump, Rebecca Mildon was weighed to make sure she had the heft to make it all the way down safely. She was only 12 years old.

Since getting her first taste of the daredevil life, Mildon, now 24, has parasailed, done the CN Tower EdgeWalk and gone skydiving at a centre near Edmonton, where an instructor died in a parachuting accident last year.

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“It’s fun to scare myself and go outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “I definitely love the thrill.”

While Mildon is always looking for the next risky experience, she’s more interested in finding it through an established organization with professionals and safety equipment on hand. “I’d rather go skydiving where I have the security of skilled staff, versus going cliff-jumping on my own,” she said.

Teenagers and young adults like Mildon who crave the thrill of extreme activities can pose a challenge for parents who want their children to test their limits, but want to ensure their safety. Not that they’ll admit it to adults, but left to their own devices teens sometimes dive into water from cottage-country cliffs, attempt daring leaps on skateboards, and Rollerblade at breakneck speeds without a helmet. But when teens are signed up for paid activities, parents have an expectation of safety – an expectation that may be misplaced.

Extreme-sporting facilities and their operators are not subject to sport-specific government regulations or standards, leaving parents to assess which ones are safe. While adults are generally more capable of weighing risks and rewards, adolescents are inherently different: Their reward-seeking system is highly developed, but the brain function that keeps impulses in check isn’t fully mature.

“There are two duelling systems that work against one another,” said Dr. Julia Spaniol, a psychology professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University. This means that when forced to make a quick decision, teenagers are more likely to do what feels good. “That’s what makes them more prone to those unchecked risky behaviours.”

These duelling systems affect decisions about driving, sexual health and substance use as well, Spaniol said.

There’s also evidence to suggest that boys may take more risks than girls, at least when it comes to physically dangerous activities. “It varies by domain,” Spaniol said, noting that girls might take bigger social risks, such as disagreeing with friends or parents at the risk of starting a fight.

“To some extent these are things that are very difficult for parents to influence because, by definition, these are things that arise in the heat of the moment,” Spaniol explained.

Reneo Ohler, 14, has been whitewater kayaking Calgary’s Elbow and Bow rivers since she was six years old. She knows if she gets lost on a course, she could crash into rocks and drown.

Though that possibility scares her, she loves the way the rivers change, the thrill of conquering new rapids. “You just get a big adrenalin rush,” she said. She stays safe by wearing a life jacket and helmet, and kayaks with Waterwerks Kayak Club’s professional instructors.

In Ontario, organizations like Waterwerks, and other extreme-sports facilities, aren’t regulated beyond general workplace health, safety and construction standards – there are no special rules regarding children or youth.

“Right now in Ontario it’s the Wild West when it comes to private, for-profit extreme-sports facilities,” said lawyer Patrick Brown of McLeish Orlando LLP. “I think many parents make a false assumption that they are monitored and they are regulated and there are minimum standards in place.”

Other provinces don’t appear to have specific regulations in place either. Representatives from British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Maritime provinces confirmed extreme sports are subject only to general business regulations. But the increased danger doesn’t mean parents should simply prohibit their kids from engaging in risky activities.

Adolescents’ thrill-seeking behaviour helps shapes their personalities, Spaniol said. “They put themselves into a situation where they make new experiences and find out who they are,” she said. “It’s not a completely self-destructive tendency.”

Active, extreme sports can also be a good way to release energy, said Toronto parent Tim Gallagher, whose 12-year-old son Ben used to play contact basketball on a friend’s trampoline before an injury forced an end to the after-school game. (Ben was once knocked unconscious when the trampoline net fell on his head.)

“You’re going to get hit or tackled or at least shoved,” Ben said. “A lot of charley horses and hits to the head. My feet get stepped on a lot.”

None of that would keep him from joining in, however.

His father’s take? “At the end of the day, a broken bone will heal,” Tim said. “Nothing’s really off-limits as long as there is a corresponding investment in time and learning how to do it properly.”

While contact trampoline basketball isn’t likely to become the next sporting rage, the summer months invite parents to sign up kids for new experiences. So what can parents do to minimize risk?

Jeff Jackson, a risk-management professor at Algonquin College’s outdoor adventure program in Ontario, suggests parents ask a series of questions to assess how legitimate an extreme-sports operator is, such as how the staff are trained and what the children-to-supervisor ratio is.

The ideal ratio is one instructor or supervisor for a maximum of five children or youth, he said. “If they don’t have a plan, they’re basically winging it.”

Gary McAdam had none of that information about Blue Mountain Resort when his two sons took a downhill mountain-biking trip in 2007 and his 13-year-old returned paralyzed with a broken neck. “You expect that there’s going to be some sort of supervision, which there was not,” McAdam said.

Represented by Brown, the family reached a settlement with Blue Mountain Resort last month in a $21-million lawsuit that argued the facility didn’t have proper safety measures in place to assess and monitor young people visiting the hill.

After the incident, Blue Mountain removed some of the jumps on its downhill mountain-biking course, required full body armour, and began assessing everyone under 16 before they were allowed to head to the hills. But there wasn’t and still isn’t any provincial regulation compelling change.

Jackson believes that, realistically, the extreme-sports industry is too small and dynamic to govern.

“Things evolve very quickly and for a government agency to try to get on top of that and keep up with that would be really cumbersome,” he said. “It would in fact squash a lot of activities that kids really do want to be involved in.”

Brown suggested facilities at least be required to report the number and nature of injuries that occur onsite.

“I think that transparency should be disclosed to parents attending so that they fully appreciate the risk that their children might be engaging in,” he said.

Jack Sasseville, president of Hardwood Ski and Bike in Barrie, Ont., said his cross-country mountain-biking resort keeps track of all injuries that occur on its premises for its own records. But there isn’t a place or way to submit those numbers to the government.

“Nothing is ever going to eliminate 100 per cent of the injuries,” Sasseville said. “The responsibility is shared by everyone, shared by kids as well. They need to learn to follow the signage and follow the rules.”

But trying to keep teens safe by posting signs is “barking up the wrong tree,” said Spaniol, because it requires controlling impulses.

The possibility of looking cool in front of peers by ignoring safety precautions tips the scale further toward the part of adolescent brains that seeks gratification. The most effective solution? Probably increased supervision, Spaniol said. “If in these dangerous settings there are people in place who can diminish the influence of the peer-group peer pressure, that could go a long way.”

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