Expert: Risky Teen Behavior Is All in the Brain

April 5, 2007

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

A new review of adolescent brain research suggests that society is wasting billions of dollars on education and intervention programs to dissuade teens from dangerous activities, because their immature brains are not yet capable of avoiding risky behaviors.

The analysis, by Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, says stricter laws and policies limiting their behaviors would be more effective than education programs.

“We need to rethink our whole approach to preventing teen risk,” says Steinberg, whose review of a decade of research is in the April issue ofCurrent Directions in Psychological Science. It’s published by the Association for Psychological Science.

“Adolescents are at an age where they do not have full capacity to control themselves,” he says. “As adults, we need to do some of the controlling.”

After age 18

Neurological researchers around the country, spearheaded by Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, have in recent years found that the brain is not fully developed until after 18. The brain system that regulates logic and reasoning develops before the area that regulates impulse and emotions, the researchers say.

Studies by Steinberg and others have found that the mere physical presence of peers increased the likelihood of teens taking risks.

Peer pressure rules

Now he’s using brain imaging to better understand why teens are so susceptible to peer pressure. He has just begun pilot projects to study brain activity in teens when doing various tasks with their peers, compared with adults under similar circumstances.

Steinberg believes raising the driving age, increasing the price of cigarettes and more strongly enforcing underage drinking laws are among ways to really curb risky behavior.

“I don’t believe the problem behind teen risky behavior is a lack of knowledge. The programs do a good job in teaching kids the facts,” he says. “Education alone doesn’t work. It doesn’t seem to affect their behavior.”

Michael Bradley, a Philadelphia-area psychologist and author specializing in teenagers, says U.S. culture tends to view teens as small adults when, neurologically, they are large children.

“Kids will sign drug pledges. They really mean that, but when they get in a park on a Friday night with their friends, that pledge is nowhere to be found in their brain structure. They’re missing the neurologic brakes that adults have.”

Bradley also is worried about the future now that risky behaviors have trickled to the preteen set.

“People look at risk statistics, and they’re more or less steady. It looks like things aren’t getting that bad. But risk behaviors have been ratcheted down to younger and younger ages,” he says. “What the parents may have dealt with at ages 16 and 17, the kids are dealing with at 11, 12 and 13 at the time when their brains are least able to handle complex decisions about risk behaviors.”

Why not both?

Such policy talk – even from psychologists – sparks a useful conversation, says Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“It is good research for policymakers to consider, but we shouldn’t infer from this research that all our past efforts have been ineffective,” she says. “I’m not in favor of just doing education, but I’m also not in favor of not doing it, either. We need to do some of both.”

Experts such as Sawhill and Caterina Roman, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Urban Institute, say some educational programs do work. But the widely popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education program known as DARE, launched in the 1980s, was determined to be ineffective.

Roman believes that recent findings that the teen brain is not yet fully developed will spawn some of the restrictions Steinberg recommends.

“Ten years from now, the driving age will be higher than it is now. The price of cigarettes will increase,” she predicts.

Steinberg says he’s not advocating a police state. But he says parents must help their children make wise decisions.

“We’ve given them too much freedom,” he says. “We don’t monitor and supervise them carefully enough.”

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