The developing brains of teenagers
This weekend, while on call for our behavioral health department, I received a call from a distressed mom of a teenage girl. While this careful mom was reviewing the contents of her daughter’s cell phone (not a bad idea!), she found “selfies” that had been sexted to her boyfriend. The pictures were pretty graphic! Her mom just couldn’t understand why her daughter would do such a dumb thing. “Doesn’t she realize that these photographs could be posted all over the Internet?!” The fact is that teenagers don’t think much before they act. Their brains are still developing, and their pre-frontal lobes, which are the guardians of intelligent behavior, are still maturing.
A recent article in The New York Times (April 27, 2013, “Friends can be dangerous” by Laurence Steinberg) reviewed a study that the author completed 8 years ago. Teens were randomly assigned to play a video driving game either alone or with two same aged friends watching. “The mere presence of peers made teenagers take much more risks and crash more often.” But also interestingly, a comparison group of adults showed no similar peer effect. Their behavior was not influenced by the presence of peers.
This study, at the time was perplexing. Most researchers thought that it was the actual encouragement (e.g. following the leader) of friends that resulted in adolescent risky behavior. Simply having peer observers, without any of their encouragement, resulted in taking risks. Adults were immune to this effect.
Later studies by the author, demonstrated that the “reward center” of the brains of teens were specifically stimulated in this video study. This arousal inclined teens to be influenced by the potential “rewards” of a risky decision rather than to take the more conservative path. Peers had no such impact on the brains of adults.
Another study highlighted this finding. College students were asked to choose between receiving a smaller immediate reward of $250 or a delayed one of $1000 in six months. Again, when observed by peers, the youth were more likely to pick the immediate reward. Alone, they were more likely to act like adults—go for the big bucks later on.
I have no doubt that the “sexting teen” was with her buddies when she sent the picture to her boyfriend. We all remember that we were more likely to do dumb things when we were with our teenage friends than by ourselves. What we didn’t recognize was that it was probably due to our developing brains, rather than our propensity to make “bad choices” when we were with other kids.
The National Institute of Health posted a revealing article on the developing brains of kids. It reminds us that our brains are continuing to grow and mature, even after we have reached physical maturity. It may not be until our early 20’s that we have the ability to delay gratification and make sound decisions.
How does this help Moms and Dads? It reminds us that risky decision making by our adolescents is more likely due to their “hard wiring” than to just making bad choices. Their ability to think about the consequences of their behavior, delay gratification, and employ complex decision-making is still neurologically in process.
What does it mean to me? Kids are like kites. When parents are firmly holding the string, the kite flies in the sky. Sometimes it is necessary to pull in the string and other times it may be the right time to let it out. But let go of the string, and the kite will plummet to the ground and crash. It is the connection between parents and teens that enable them to test their wings.
What do you think?