The truth about why teens takes risks

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Teenagers are impulsive and took risks, not because their brains are still developing, but because they simply want to learn more about the world around them, a recent study has found.

Researchers are challenging a popular theory teens seemingly lack control over their actions due to the slow development of the prefrontal cortex and its weak connectivity with brain reward regions.

According to an article on an extensive literature review published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience challenges that interpretation.

"Not long ago, the explanation for teenage behaviour was raging hormones," said lead author Daniel Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

"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."

The researchers instead think the rise in neurotransmitter dopamine in teens supported the brain's ability to have greater control of, and to learn from, their experiences. It also increased the desire for sensation seeking.

"What's happening is that adolescents lack experience," Dr Romer said.

"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."


Researchers said those most at risk of having unhealthy outcomes were the smaller subset of teens that exhibited impulsive behaviour and had weak cognitive control.

However, the potentially destructive impacts of risk-taking behaviour were not the case for the majority of teenagers.

"For the vast majority of adolescents, this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes," report authors said.

Dr Romer added: "The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job in making the difficult and risky decisions in later 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's doesn't mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control."