Richard G. Petty, MD

Risk-taking in Teenagers

The study of adolescence is in an intersting state of flux.

The expectation that teenagers are rebellious by nature is probably not correct. After all, it is nly recently that adolescence, which more or less corresponds to the teen years, has been recognized at all. As recently as the early 1960, most young people went straight from school to employment, and wore the same clothes as everyone else at work. And of course that is still the pattern in many parts of the world, with the exception of school, which is sadly unavailable to so many. In most cultures teenage rebellion is not recognized at all.

Two years ago Professor Philip Graham, author of an excellent book published by Oxford University Press called ‘The End of Adolescence’ and a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist, challenged the myth that teenagers are trouble. He believes that the social attitudes towards the ‘adolescent stereotype’ that prevail in Western society have significant negative effects on the mental health of young people.

This stereotyping can cause some real problems:

  • Low expectations of behaviour are often shared by teenagers themselves, leading to low self-esteem
  • at least some of the frustration shown by young people in secondary schools can be attributed to the fact that they are ‘disempowered’ in relation to their intellectual and emotional competence
  • The legal position of young people, for instance in relation to the age of criminal responsibility, voting age and the consumption of drugs and alcohol, is wildly inconsistent, and results both in injustice and in inadequate preparation for adult life
  • The organisation of mental health services often fails to take into account the need to recognise the ‘young adult’ status of this age group.

The other side of this research is the risky behavior of many young people.

There is an excellent review in this month’s issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science by Laurence Steinberg, Distinguished University Professor and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is also the Director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice.

The review points out that over the past 10 years there has been a great deal of new research on adolescent brain development that sheds light on why yonug peple engage in risky and dangerous behavior. And also answer the question about why the educational programs or interventions that have been developed have not been especially effective. According to Steinberg, heightened risk taking in adolescence is the result of competition between two very different brain systems, the “socioemotional” and cognitive-control networks. Both are undergoing maturation during adolescence, but along very different timetables. During the adolescence, the socioemotional system becomes more assertive during puberty, while the cognitive-control system gains strength only gradually and over a longer period of time.

The “socioemotional” system processes social and emotional information, and it becomes very active during puberty, allowing adolescents to become more easily aroused and experience more intense emotion. They also become more sensitive to social influence.

On the other side, the cognitive-control system is the part of the brain that regulates behavior and makes the ultimate decisions, but it is still maturing during adolescence and into a person’s mid-20s and perhaps beyond.

The socioemotional system is not always going full bore. When the system is not highly activated, for example, when individuals are not emotionally excited or they are alone, the cognitive-control network is strong enough to impose regulatory control over impulsive and risky behavior, even in early adolescence.

In the presence of peers, or in situations where emotions run high, the socioemotional network becomes sufficiently activated to diminish the regulatory effectiveness of the cognitive-control network.

Steinberg cites a study in which the presence of peers more than doubled the number of risks teenagers took in a video driving game.

As he says,

“In adolescence, not only is more merrier — it is also riskier.”

“There is a window of vulnerability in teens between puberty and mid-to-late adolescence in which kids have already started to experience the increased arousal of the socioemotional system, but they don’t yet have a fully mature cognitive control system,” he says. “Because their cognitive-control system is still not fully mature, it is more easily disrupted, especially when the socioemotional system is quite excited. And it gets excited by the presence of other people.”

“I don’t want people to think that education should not continue, I just think that it alone is not going to make much of a difference in deterring risky behavior. Some things just take time to develop, and, like it or not, mature judgment is probably one of them.”

Steinberg advocates stricter laws and policies that would limit opportunities for immature judgment that often have harmful consequences. For example, strategies such as raising the price of cigarettes, more vigilantly enforcing laws governing the sale of alcohol, expanding adolescents’ access to mental-health and contraceptive services, or raising the driving age would likely be more effective than education in limiting adolescent smoking, substance abuse, pregnancy, and automobile fatalities.

This is controversial stuff, but is also an illustration of a way in which science can help us make better decisions about how best to help young people to avoid auto-destruction.

Neurologically, teenagers are not just small adults, they are still large children. The problem is heightened because so many young people are constantly multi-tasking and children are being exposed to risky behaviors at ever younger ages, when their brains are least able to handle complex decisions about things that may have long-term consequences for them.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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