Thursday, 26 February 2009

Risk-taking Behaviour in Adolescence

Teenagers are known for risk-taking, novelty seeking, reckless behaviour and impulsivity.

Risk-taking behaviour can take on many different forms, including the misuse of alcohol or drugs, engaging in unprotected sexual activity, some types of criminal activity or risky, adrenaline-producing sports like skydiving or motocross. While you may not have done all of these things, the majority of adolescents and young adults report participating in one or more risk-taking behaviours.

One reason for this is that the teenage brain is less able than the adult brain to inhibit impulsive behaviours. Adolescents become more able to control their behaviour as their brains mature, but efficient control of impulsive acts is not fully developed until adulthood. When teenagers are faced with a reward, the “reward” systems of their brains are disproportionately active compared to the “control” systems (which are later to mature). This makes it difficult for teenagers to be in command of their reward response, and makes them biased towards immediate gain over long-term gain.

A recent article on highlighted this shortsightedness of youth
According to popular stereotype, young teenagers are shortsighted, leaving them prone to poor judgment and risky decision-making when it comes to issues like taking drugs and having sex. Now a new study confirms that teens 16 and younger do think about the future less than adults, but explains that the reasons may have less to do with impulsivity and more to do with a desire to do something exciting.

Compared with adults, the researchers found, teenagers consider the future less and prefer immediate rewards over delayed ones (for example, $700 today versus $1,000 a year from now). But it may not be impulsivity that guides their lack of forethought. Instead, the study found that teens are shortsighted more due to immaturity in the brain systems that govern sensation seeking than to immaturity in the brain systems responsible for self-control.

While the origins of risk-taking behaviour in adolescents have been debated for a centuries and many explanations ranging from hormones to social pressures have been endorsed. But the truth is we are still not completely sure why adolescents and young adults are more prone to risk-taking behaviours.
We do however know that part of the answer lies in the way that brain development occurs during this part of the life-span and that risk-taking behaviors often decrease as the young person matures into adulthood. It’s the complex interplay amongst brain development, personality characteristics and the environment that lead to differences in risk-taking behavior amongst young people.

Interestingly, recent research suggests that the perception of risk does not vary greatly with age, but rather within the type of decision-making information that adolescents and adults use. So even though adolescents may be more prone to engage in risky behaviour, they are not irrational, unaware, or believe they are more invulnerable than adults. These findings suggest that young people certainly have the frontal lobe capabilities to self modulate risky behaviors – provided they understand how to do so.

(Great article from UC Davis Magazine about "What parents should tell college students about risky behavior . . . even if they don’t listen.")

~ Dr. Stan Kutcher

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