How Teens Learn to Avoid Risky Behavior
by Jacob L. Dunn, age 12
Many teenagers engage in risky behavior, such as committing crimes, due to impulsiveness. There are various factors that influence teenagers to be so impulsive, including social and peer pressure and a difficulty in controlling their actions.
In social situations, teenagers can experience peer pressure and stress related to their social environment. This can lead some teens to commit actions that could put them in scary or dangerous situations that are unknown to them. While many people may assume that a contributing factor for why teens engage in such risky behavior is because they underestimate the possible negative outcomes of their actions. However, the opposite is the case, according to postdoctoral student at New York University, Agnieszka Tymula.
“Relative to adults, adolescents engage more in unknown risks than they do in known risks,” stated Tymula. She claims that instead, teens are more open to this sense of the unknown, which serves as one explanation for the ways that the teenage brain works when it comes to high-risk situations.
Another reason teenagers are attracted to high-risk situations is the feeling of instant gratification that usually follows. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is the brain region that evaluates decisions and the consequences of different actions. This means that teenagers are more likely to make impulsive decisions or take risks. For this reason, and the influences in their environment, many teens may form addictions to drugs and other substances. The negative impacts of experimenting with such substances at a young age may cause a long-lasting cycle of addiction stretching past adolescence.
Aside from teens’ inclination to engage in risky behavior, a lack of self-control also plays a part in their stereotypical impulsivity. A specific part of the prefrontal cortex, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), serves as the control center for behavior. Because the entire prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped at this stage of maturity, the vmPFC still lacks the ability to help teens fully restrain themselves from temptation and impulsive reactions, especially in high-risk situations.
"You could think of it as the brake," said Kristina Caudle, Cornell Medical College neuroscientist, when explaining the role of the vmPFC. "It's as if the teenage brain might need to work a little harder to hold that response back."
Researchers say it is important for teens to surround themselves with good influences and seek out environments that help them avoid negative decisions. Supportive environments that promote making informed decisions and understanding consequences are helpful for youth in this age group.
Science.org; National Institute on Drug Abuse