Why do teenagers pull crazy stunts and engage in high-risk behaviors? Some have suggested that teens engage in risk-taking due to peer pressure and influence. Others have claimed that risk-taking is just one step in overall healthy brain and personality development, while still others posit it as a coping mechanism. Why teens tend to take more risks than children or adults and when that tendency begins to wane were two questions addressed in a pair of recent studies.
Teens Wired To Enjoy Risks?
A University of Texas, Austin study has concluded that teenagers are biologically wired to enjoy risks. Building on prior research which said that teens are highly sensitized to rewards, the UT study team recruited participants ranging in age from 8 to 30 years and used functional MRI (fMRI) imaging to observe brain activity while the subjects performed tasks and earned rewards. Participants were assigned categorizing tasks and awarded financial gifts for correct responses. Researchers were able to watch as the brain kicked up activity in the reward system each time the subject processed a right answer and calculated its associated financial reward.
Learning how to properly categorize is based on something referred to as error prediction. The UT researchers witnessed on screen how dopamine (reward brain chemical) and error prediction were strongly intertwined. The spike in error prediction brain activity was greatest in teen participants, which indicated that the teens were learning the most through each task. The highest levels of error prediction would enjoy the greatest amount of brain reward (dopamine). In other words, teens are biologically predisposed to the rewards of trial and error learning.
Substance Abuse Studies
A second study, this one conducted in Switzerland, focused on when that tendency for risk taking starts to taper off. In the study nearly three thousand 16 to 29 year olds were examined for risky behaviors such as use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, drunkenness and unprotected sex. The study learned that both smoking and drunkenness declined with age and maturity. Marijuana use also declined. Alcohol abuse and risky sex, on the other hand, rose throughout the teen years and stayed high into adulthood. In short, most risk-taking drops off over time, with the notable exception of risky sex.
Even though teens may be wired to enjoy risky behavior more than the rest of us, it cannot be a blanket excuse for deviance. With guidance, teens can overcome biological predispositions they may carry. Understanding teens bent toward risky behavior can help us to work towards preventative measures that can help them to avoid unwise decisions and also help us to treat teens who have formed addictive behaviors.