By now parents are familiar with the worrisome finding that the thrill-seeking centers of the adolescent brain can readily outmatch the teenage brain’s emerging rational control systems.
I count myself among the adults who find this neurological account of adolescent recklessness to be both clarifying and confounding. It helpfully explains why really thoughtful teenagers sometimes do really dumb things. But experience tells us that some teenagers are much more impulsive than others, so it’s hard to imagine that all adolescents are equally at the mercy of their own gawky brains.
New research sheds light on the question of teenagers and self-control. A study of more than 5,000 adolescents and young adults from 11 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas confirmed that adolescents worldwide have similarly risk-prone brains, but vary substantially in actual risk-taking.
Laurence Steinberg, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at Temple University, said that the findings, in the journal Developmental Science, suggest that “the context in which kids grow up must matter a great deal, and that adolescent recklessness isn’t the inevitable byproduct of the period’s biology.”
Dr. Steinberg and his colleagues demonstrated that sensation seeking — the yearning for excitement that can characterize adolescence — peaks around age 19 worldwide, and then declines with age. In contrast, self-regulation — the ability to quash an impulse — climbs in a gradual, linear trend until around ages 23 or 24, when it plateaus at adult levels. The fact that self-regulation lags behind sensation seeking helps explain consistent evidence that risk-taking spikes during the teenage years.
“But just because something is rooted in biology,” Dr. Steinberg notes, “doesn’t mean that it’s not malleable and that there’s nothing we can do about it.” As he adds, “even in China we are finding that adolescents are at a time of heightened sensation seeking, but they don’t engage in the high rates of drug use, unprotected sex and recklessness that we see in America and Western Europe.”
– Lisa Damour
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