There is a common belief that when children become adolescents they transform into out-of-control teens who take on crazy risks. However, this might not be entirely true.
An article published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences reviewed research into whether teenagers are actually more likely to take risks than children. Analyzing earlier, carefully controlled laboratory studies, the authors found that despite the common stereotypes, there was no real evidence to support the notion that teens have out-of-control brains.
The study’s coauthor Dan Romer, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the stereotype is an old idea that neuroscientists recently used “to explain some of their early findings regarding brain development during adolescence.” He tells Parentology, “Prior to that, it was common to refer to hormones going out of control to explain teen risk-taking. So, whatever trend in research is popular gets used to explain this stereotype.”
While there is evidence that adolescents take on more dangerous things in the real world, Romer noted in the original study, “it’s not because they are intrinsically more risk-taking than children. The question is, what would account for the real-world difference?”
Real World Versus the Laboratory
In the laboratory studies, researchers asked participants if they were willing to take a risk to win more money or some other reward, or would they rather get a lower payoff but with more certainty. The research showed that early adolescents – kids ranging from 11 to 13 years old – were more likely to take greater risks in this setting than mid-to-late adolescents from 14 to 19. This goes against research that shows that real-world hazards and risks increase during adolescence.
Why the difference?
One theory is that parents watch over younger kids in the real world more than they do teenagers. Lead author Ivy N. Defoe, a recent postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, notes that teens have greater exposure to physical risks than younger children. This is the age where they get to drive, and have access to alcohol and possibly other drugs.
“Teens are natural explorers and if parents are aware of that and can help them to do that in a safe manner, then we will all be better off,” Romer says. “A good example is graduated driving regulations that don’t allow teens to start driving independently until they’ve had some time driving with an adult to gain experience in a safe manner.”
Impact on Public Policy
Adolescents are less mature than adults, and they do make mistakes. But, as Romer states, “Greater recognition of teen immaturity can be supported without going so far as to say that the teen brain is incapable of self-control.”
Romer notes that when it comes to formulating public policy, age should be taken into consideration when kids take on unhealthy behavior such as smoking, or behavior that harms others. He says, “We should give teens the benefit of the doubt if they break laws and help them to avoid such behavior in the future. Teens are great learners and if they make mistakes they can quickly adjust.”
Why Do Teens Take Risks – Sources
Additional reporting by Shah Shahid