Give teens room to take risks and grow

Much of the risk behaviour attributed to adolescents is not the result of an out-of-control brain.

By Dan Romer

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Published: Thu 16 Nov 2017, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Nov 2017, 8:35 PM

A deficit in the development of the teenage brain has been blamed for teens' behaviour in recent years, but it may be time to lay the stereotype of the wild teenage brain to rest. Brain deficits don't make teens do risky things; lack of experience and a drive to explore the world are the real factors.
Much of the risk behaviour attributed to adolescents is not the result of an out-of-control brain. As it turns out, the evidence supports an alternative interpretation: Risky behaviour is a normal part of development and reflects a biologically driven need for exploration - a process aimed at acquiring experience and preparing teens for the complex decisions they will need to make as adults.
We often characterise adolescents as impulsive, reckless and emotionally unstable. We used to attribute this behaviour to "raging hormones." More recently, it's been popular in some scientific circles to explain adolescent behaviour as the result of an imbalance in the development of the brain.
According to this theory, the prefrontal cortex, the centre of the brain's cognitive-control system, matures more slowly than the limbic system, which governs desires and appetites including drives for food and sex. This creates an imbalance in the adolescent brain that leads to even more impulsive and risky behaviour than seen in children - or so the theory goes.
This idea has gained currency to the point where it's become common to refer to the "teenage brain" as the source of the injuries and other maladies that arise during adolescence. In my view, the most striking failure of the teen brain hypothesis is its conflating of important differences between different kinds of risky behaviour, only a fraction of which support the notion of the impulsive, unbridled adolescent.
What clearly peaks in adolescence is an interest in exploration and novelty seeking. Adolescents are by necessity engaged in exploring essential questions about themselves - who they are, what skills they have and who among their peers is worth socialising with.
But these explorations are not necessarily conducted impulsively. Rising levels of dopamine in the brain during adolescence appear to drive an increased attraction to novel and exciting experiences. Yet this "sensation seeking" behaviour is also accompanied by increasing levels of cognitive control that peak at the same age as adolescents' drive for exploration. This ability to exert cognitive control peaks well before structural brain maturation, which peaks at about age 25.
Researchers who attribute this exploratory behaviour to recklessness are more likely falling prey to stereotypes about adolescents than assessing what actually motivates their behaviour.
If adolescents were truly reckless, they should show a tendency toward risk-taking even when the risks of bad outcomes are known. But they don't. In experiments where the probabilities of their risks are known, adolescents take fewer risks than children.
Considerable research suggests that adolescence and young adulthood is a heightened period of learning that enables a young person to gain the experience needed to cope with life's challenges. This learning, colloquially known as wisdom, continues to grow well into adulthood. The irony is that most late adolescents and young adults are more able to control their behaviour than many older adults, resulting in what some have called the wisdom paradox.
A dispassionate review of existing research suggests that what adolescents lack is not so much the ability to control their behaviour, but the wisdom that adults gain through experience. This takes time and, without it, adolescents and young adults who are still exploring will make mistakes. But these are honest mistakes, so to speak, because for most teens, they do not result from a lack of control.
This realisation is not so new, but it serves to place the recent neuroscience of brain development in perspective. It is because adolescents are immature in regard to experience that makes them vulnerable to mishaps. And for those with weak cognitive control, the risks are even greater. But we should not let stereotypes of this immaturity colour our interpretation of what they are doing. Teenagers are just learning to be adults, and this inevitably involves a certain degree of risk.
Dan Romer is Research Director, Annenberg Public Policy Centre, University of Pennsylvania
- The Conversation

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