Risky teen behaviour is more than brain wiring

Having a brain wired to take risks does not excuse extreme risk-taking behavior in teens, according to latest research.

It is well-documented that the area of the brain responsible for thrill seeking in teen brains matures sooner than the area in charge of rational decision making.

However, recent research involving 5000 adolescents from across the globe has found a risk-prone brain does not necessarily mean teens are not able to control their behaviour.

Context is key.

The research, published in the journal Developmental Science, found adolescents from the 11 different countries (including the Americas, Europe and Asia) studied had similar risk-prone brains but there were dramatic variations in actual risk taking behaviour among teens depending on other factors.

The lead author of the study Dr Laurence Steinberg told the New York Times the context in which adolescents grew up made significant differences to reckless actions among those studied.

“… the context in which kids grow up must matter a great deal… adolescent recklessness isn’t the inevitable byproduct of the period’s biology,” Dr Steinberg said.

“Just because something is rooted in biology doesn’t mean that it’s not malleable and that there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

He added there was a belief stemming from the research that teens growing up in countries where risk-taking was low among adolescents were encouraged to use self-control from a young age and led a “structured” life without much “unstructured” time to get themselves into trouble with reckless behaviour.

“… in China we are finding that adolescents are at a time of heightened sensation seeking, but they don’t engage in the high rates of drug use, unprotected sex and recklessness that we see in America and Western Europe.”

He said cultural values and available opportunities for risk-taking were strong reasons for disparities among countries studied.

“While many Americans see individual autonomy as a cherished aspect of our national identity, granting lots of freedom may not be the best way to keep teenagers safe.”

He said the research showed parents needed to monitor teenagers’ activities and encourage self-regulation.