Neuroscience has found that there is early maturation of the limbic system and a prolonged maturation of the prefrontal cortex region of the brain. The maturation of these areas is associated with increased self-control, while the absence of maturation is associated with impulsivity and poor decision-making (Romer, 2012). Adolesces is often associated with greater risk-taking behavior and impulsivity, as demonstrated by increased experimentation with drug use, accidents, and risky sexual behavior (Arnett, 1992).
The propensity for risking-taking behavior is likely influenced by several factors. There are changes happening in parts of the brain that may increase teens’ tendencies toward risky behaviors. There is limited maturation in parts of the brain that may control risky decisions and behavior. Moreover, experiences may increase or decrease the proclivity for risky behavior.
All areas of the brain are not maturing at the same time and rate. Some parts of the brain develop earlier, while others are not fully mature until adulthood. An area of the brain referred to as the ‘rewards system’ begins to develop rather early in adolescence. The rewards system is stimulated with increased releases of dopamine when engaged in sensation-seeking behavior. This change encourages adolescence to desire independence, seek novel experiences, and engage in more adult-like activities (Spear, 2007). Many of these exciting, novel, independent activities are associated with some risk (e.g., drugs, driving, sex). Increases in sensation-seeking behavior are observed in 14 to 22-year-olds. The level of sensation-seeking is typically greater in males than females and continues further into adulthood for males. Sensation-seeking behavior tends to peak in females around 16, whereas males peak around 19 (Romer, 2012).
The decision-making process involved in sensation-seeking may be the same heuristic that influences adult decisions. Heuristics are simple decision rules that allow us to make decisions quickly, without much contemplation. In this case, the affect heuristic seems to apply in many risky decisions. The affect heuristic relies on our dominant affective (emotional) reaction to a situation when evaluating the risks and rewards. Simply, we tend to conclude that the more positive effect that is associated with a situation, the less risk we attach. The rational choice would expect us to evaluate risk and reward separately, not in relation to one another. Enjoying an activity does not inherently make it less risky, and safe activity is not innately less enjoyable (Romer, 2012).
Peers are another influence on risk-taking behavior. Adolescent sensation seekers not only associate the positive effects with risky behaviors, but they also seek out peers with similar interests. These peers create a social group that may encourage risk-taking behavior and increases the positive affect associated with the experience. The influence of peers on risky behavior is greater than that of sensation-seeking alone. However, the combination of sensation-seeking and peer influence has a significantly greater influence on risky adolescent behavior than sensation-seeking or peer influence alone (Romber, 2012).
Delayed Executive Functioning
Another area of the brain that may influence risk-taking tendencies in adolescence is the prefrontal cortex. As previously mentioned, this part of the brain is not fully developed until early adulthood. The developed prefrontal cortex allows us to assess situations, consider consequences, and control impulses adequately. The gap between the increase in the sensation-seeking of the rewards system and the slower-developing prefrontal cortex puts adolescents at particular jeopardy for risk-taking behaviors and potentially unhealthy outcomes.
Brain research data has led to the idea of ‘frontalization,’ whereby the prefrontal cortex gradually becomes able to oversee and regulate the behavioral responses initiated by the more primitive limbic structures. However, when stress, arousal, or sensations become extreme, the adolescent brain is flooded with impulses that overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, and as a result, adolescents engage in increased risk-taking behaviors and emotional outbursts. With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still engage in risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light.
The Influence of Experience
Risk-taking behavior is not uniform across adolescence or among adolescents. For example, the Seattle Social Development Project (Hill, White, Hawkins, & Catalano, 2000) found that 70% of youth 13 to 18 had not engaged in binge drinking. Three percent reported binge drinking starting at 13 years old and continued through age 18. Another four percent engaged in binge drinking later in adolescence. And 23% didn’t binge drink until they were 18 years old. The likelihood f engaging in risk-taking behavior and the timing of these behaviors may be influenced by experience—either early life experiences that increase the propensity toward risk-taking or normative age-graded influences.
For some teens, their impulsivity and risk-taking behavior may have begun years before and persisted into adolescence. There is considerable evidence that adolescent risk-taking, for some, is due to impaired impulse control that occurred in the first years of life due to exposure to severe, chronic stress. This type of stress can have a ‘toxic’ effect on a range of behaviors and health outcomes. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (CDC, 2019) found that exposure to abuse, neglect, domestic or community violence, familial substance abuse or mental illness, separation from parents, homelessness, discrimination, natural disasters, and war are serious traumas that result in toxic stress. Those facing adverse childhood experiences are at higher risk for adolescent pregnancy, early sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, intimate partner violence, substance abuse, depression, suicide, and poor physical health. In general, the more adverse childhood experiences, the more risky behaviors in adolescence.
The second source for risk, as previously discussed, is the increase in sensation-seeking associated with brain development. Those changes encourage experimentation with adult-like behavior. These risky behaviors are part of normative age-graded influence due to a lack of experience. To overcome the tendency toward these behaviors is to gain experience in taking risks. The role of experience is critical in developing the neural connectivity that allows for the conscious cognitive control of the emotions and passions of adolescence. Teens who take risks in relatively safe situations exercise the circuitry and develop the skills to “put on the brakes” in more dangerous situations (Giedd, 2004).
Decreasing the Risk
Mitigating the extremes of risk-taking and potential unhealthy outcomes is possible. There are two approaches to helping young people reduce risk and stay safe. First, early intervention, before children reach adolescence, is the best time to teach executive functioning and self-regulation skills that can reduce impulsivity. Second, teens need to gain life experience. When high sensation-seekers engage in risk-taking, they develop greater patience. Patience is a factor that reduces risk-taking behavior. This effect is amplified in conduct-disordered teens. Conduct disorder is a psychological diagnosis applied only to minors, characterized by impulsivity, aggression, deceitfulness, destructive behavior, and resistance to authority or rules. These youth are often sensation-seeking and take risks with the possibility of serious consequences. However, despite their greater risk-taking behavior, their consequences may actually result in them being less impatient than their low sensation-seeking peers (Turner & Piquero, 2002). It seems that teens need to engage in some risk-taking behavior to learn from the consequences of their experiences.
Adolescents are often mischaracterized as irrational loose cannons. However, while adolescents may be learning to think like adults, their brains are not fully developed. A hopped-up rewards system that can drown out warning signals about risk from an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex results in more risk-taking behaviors. Adolescent decisions are not always defined by impulsivity because of lack of brakes, but because of planned and enjoyable pressure to the accelerator. It is helpful to put all of these brain processes in a developmental context. Young people need to somewhat enjoy the thrill of risk-taking in order to complete the incredibly overwhelming task of growing up.
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