Risk and the adolescent brain.

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 4 2010 10:02 AM

No Brakes!

Risk and the adolescent brain.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

It's often said that adolescents are fearless and see themselves as invulnerable, that they're irrational in how they reason and process information, that they act with no logical basis for their decisions and don't really understand risk. This is all a little true, but only to the extent that it's true of everybody. People of all ages are bad at assessing risk and making rational decisions. People of all ages underestimate likely dangers and overestimate unlikely ones.

That's why Americans—who insist on their right to drive, use the phone, and eat at the same time—are more afraid of being killed by dastardly foreigners than by their neighbors or themselves. A series of recent studies has demonstrated that the level of irrationality among adolescents and adults is about the same, which means that we can no longer explain the risky behavior of teenagers by telling ourselves that adolescents suffer from some special inability to reason.

These studies also encourage us to reconsider the notion that adolescents just make uniquely bad choices, and the corollary assumption that if we just tell them how to make better choices they will do so.

There are powerful forces—such as the brain's reaction to the presence of peers as a potent prompt and reward for sensation-seeking—that can move an adolescent to select risky behavior as the "right" choice. Urging kids to "Just Say No" to drugs, for instance, has been ineffective because it misses key factors leading to drug use. A given young person might say "No" when he or she is alone, but not when surrounded by peers. In fact, opting to say "Yes!" to drugs at a party—in a situation replete with the novel sensation and peer influence that light up the early adolescent brain like a Christmas tree—makes perfect sense because it maximizes rewards.

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Interventions based on these erroneous assumptions are not likely to help much.

They include:

1. Reasoning with your child

We've written before about the relative ineffectiveness of reasoned argument as a way to change behavior. That's especially true in this case. When you sit down to explain to your early adolescent why it's unwise to climb the town water tower to have sex with predicate felons while doing nitrous, you're acting on two assumptions that we now know to be false: 1) teenagers do not understand risk and consequences (which leads to the mistaken notion that you can change your child's behavior by patiently explaining the dangers of the water tower escapade), and 2) the system in the early-adolescent brain that controls reason and abstract thinking can control the risky behavior encouraged by the system keyed to social and emotional stimulus. (More on these two systems later.)

Yes, it's always good to explain things to one's children, and doing so in a consistent, reasonable, gentle, and loving way can help build a strong relationship, which helps. And your explanation may well give them a tool for reasoning that they can reach for when they are ready to use what's in their mental toolbox. But your child may not be ready now. The potential positive long-term effects of explanation do not make it an effective short-term intervention that will stop your early-adolescent child from going out and doing something risky tomorrow.

2. Educational programs in the schools

This is a more expensive, elaborate, and systematic version of No. 1. Our schools make available all sorts of programs to explain to students what the problem is (drinking is bad), what it does (alters judgment), what can happen (car accident and death), and what one should do (don't drink). More than 90 percent of all U.S. high-school students have been exposed to sex, drug, and driver education in their schools, yet they still engage in high-risk behaviors. Current research now suggests that attempts to make adolescents less impulsive, less shortsighted, and more aware of consequences have very weak effects, if any, on behavior. That doesn't mean the programs are worthless. Some tiny number of students will be influenced by them in the short run, and in the long run they're likely to provide tools that a maturing young person can take up when the further development of the cognitive-control system has brought him to the point that he's ready to use them.

3. Pledges not to engage in risky behavior

One common intervention especially beloved by moral crusaders and supported by government funds asks teenagers to formally promise not to engage in behaviors that place them at risk. The focus has been on sexual activity. As far as we can tell, it doesn't work, and occasionally it makes things worse. A recent study by Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University evaluated the effect of pledging abstinence (the "virginity pledge") versus not pledging among teenagers and then followed them for five years to evaluate the impact on sexual activity. Five years after the pledge, the results indicated that pledgers and nonpledgers did not differ in amount of premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, anal or oral sex, age of first sex, or number of sexual partners. Pledgers had used birth control and condoms less often than nonpledgers in the past year or at last sex. In short, the intervention was effective only in decreasing precautions taken during sex. As an ancillary but not irrelevant finding, five years after taking the virginity pledge 82 percent of the pledgers denied having ever pledged.

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