Risk taking teens learning their world

Taking risks as a teenager is part of everyday life – challenging boundaries, testing out new ways of expressing themselves and being part of the world around them.

Common scientific thought puts risk taking in adolescence down to the slow development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain which effects impulse control and decision making, making teens more prone to risky behaviours because of their developmental phase.

However, University of Pennsylvania researchers have challenged the reasoning behind the theory, saying evidence from an extensive review of neuroscientific research has found the behaviours which look like teen impulsivity and risk taking on the surface are actually more likely to be behaviours expressed by teens trying to find out about their world.

Research lead author Daniel Romer said developments in neuroscience theories were always evolving.

“Not so long ago, the explanation for teenage behaviour was raging hormones,” Dr Romer said.

“Now, it’s that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. Neuroscientists were quick to interpret what appeared to be a characteristic of the developing brain as evidence of stereotypes about adolescent risk taking. But these behaviours are not symptoms of a brain deficit,” he added.

He said brain development theory failed to take into account implications of different types of risk taking – teens have a natural attraction to exciting experiences which is known as sensation seeking.

“What’s happening is that adolescents lack experience.”

“So they’re trying things out for the first time – like learning how to drive. They’re also trying drugs, deciding what to wear and who to hang out with. For some youth, this leads to problems. But when you’re trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes.”

“Researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when for most youth, it’s just exploration.”

In their research article published recently in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Journal, researchers wrote about the smaller subset of teens who exhibit impulsive behaviour along with weak cognitive control – identified at 4-5 years of age. This subset of teens was disproportionately more likely to experience the negative effects of risk taking and impulsive behaviour, such as violence, sexually transmitted diseases, illnesses and injury.

“Further research is clearly needed to understand the brain development of youth who are at risk for adverse outcomes, as abnormalities of brain development are certainly linked to diverse neuropsychiatric conditions,” co-author Theodore Satterwaite said.

Dr Satterwaite said further research would help scientists better understand how adolescence is a period of growth and of risk.

Research authors proposed looking at teen risk taking and impulsive behaviour in terms of its role in adolescent development. The idea views these behaviours as “…an adaptive need to gain the experience required to assume adult roles and behaviours.”

Dr Romer said latest research has shown an individual’s view of risk and reward changes as they mature and he said these changes needed to be taken into account when explaining teen impulsive behaviour.

“The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job making the difficult and risky decisions later in life – decisions like ‘should I take this job’ or ‘should I marry this person’.”

“There’s no doubt that this period of development is a challenge for parents, but that doesn’t mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control.”