Cole Skinner was hanging from a wall above an abandoned quarry when he heard a car pull up. He and his friends bolted, racing along a narrow path on the quarry’s edge and hopping over a barbed-wire fence to exit the grounds.

The chase is part of the fun for Skinner and his friend Alex McCallum-Toppin, both 15 and pupils at a school in Faringdon, UK. The two say that they seek out places such as construction sites and disused buildings — not to get into trouble, but to explore. There are also bragging rights to be earned. “It’s just something you can say: ‘Yeah, I’ve been in an abandoned quarry’,” says McCallum-Toppin. “You can talk about it with your friends.”

Science has often looked at risk-taking among adolescents as a monolithic problem for parents and the public to manage or endure. When Eva Telzer, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, asks family, friends, undergraduates or researchers in related fields about their perception of teenagers, “there’s almost never anything positive”, she says. “It’s a pervasive stereotype.” But how Alex and Cole dabble with risk — considering its social value alongside other pros and cons — is in keeping with a more complex picture emerging from neuroscience.

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