The teenage brain: prone to risk-taking or creative?

Public perceptions of the “teenage brain” can be self-fulfilling prophecies
Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

In November 2018, four teenagers were awarded the 2018 Children’s Peace Prize. They are survivors of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting and founders of the March For Our Lives movement. The prestigious prize recognized their courage in speaking up against the established order – something teenagers are remarkably good at.

Unfortunately, we often read negative reports about the behavior of teenagers, for example about binge drinking, reckless driving, disengagement from school, and even delinquency. Such risky behaviors are often linked to the “teenage brain” – a term commonly used to refer to the unique neurobiological developmental phase of adolescence. Many books and blogs offer advice for parents on surviving with a “teen brain” in the house.

Over the past decade, neuroscientific research has provided important insights into neurocognitive development during adolescence, helping us to understand the fickle behavior of teenagers. The term “teenage brain” is now in common usage. Researchers initially believed that adolescent brain development was associated mainly with impulsivity and risk-taking. Teenagers’ brains are very sensitive to peer pressure and immediate rewards. The areas of the brain that are responsible for impulse control and other executive functions, such as efficient planning, are still developing until a person reaches at least the age of 25.

However, there is more to the story. Accumulating evidence shows that emotionally driven, risky behavior is strongly dependent on the context, and that many adolescents often do not exhibit such negative behaviors. In fact, this developmental phase is also associated with a number of very positive behaviors, such as increased learning and positive risk-taking. The increased reward sensitivity of the adolescent brain, initially often linked to negative consequences, turns out to be beneficial for feedback learning and promoting learning and memory. The survivors of the Parkland shooting are examples of positive risk-taking, but so are the adolescents who choose to take challenging courses or defend a bullied friend. Exploratory behavior and the choice of more challenging and risky options are often positive. If teenagers never take risks, how will they ever learn to cope with failure?

“If teenagers never take risks, how will they ever learn to cope with failure?”

But what impact do messages about the “teenage brain” have on teenagers themselves, and on their parents? If you keep hearing that your ”teenage brain” is incapable of controlling your behavior, will you start acting accordingly?

In a recently published study, my PhD student Sibel Altikulaç and I, together with our colleagues, explored public perceptions of the “teenage brain” and how these perceptions influence teenagers’ behavior. We asked teenagers (ages 12-16), and parents of teenagers to name the first three things that came to mind when they heard the term “teenage brain.” For the teenagers, and even more so for their parents, associations were mainly negative. Common responses included such words as “impulsive” or “cranky”. Positive associations, such as “creative” or “independent,” were reported significantly less often.

The teenagers were then asked to read statements about the role of neurocognitive development in adolescent behavior, and to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed. Half of the participants were given negatively framed statements (“Because adolescents have less control over their behavior than adults, they often make impulsive choices”), while the other half were given similar statements framed in a positive way (“Because adolescents are increasingly able to control their behavior, they are increasingly able to make well-considered choices”).

In the third part of the study, the teenagers were asked to complete several tasks on a computer. One was the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), which involves pumping up a balloon. The more they inflated the balloon, the more points they could win, but the higher the risk that the balloon would burst – which would mean losing all their points. Another task was to read a failure scenario and answer questions about how they would respond if they failed in a similar situation.

“It is therefore important to focus greater attention on creative young social activists and less on young binge drinkers.”

We found two interesting associations. First, the participants who read the negative statements and  strongly agreed with them inflated the balloons more than the participants who disagreed. In other words, the teenagers who believed that the developing adolescent brain is associated with negative behavior took a greater risk. Second, the participants who read the positive statements and strongly agreed with them reported more resilient strategies for coping with failure, compared with the participants who disagreed. In both cases, the results suggest that the teenagers’ behavior when completing the tasks corresponded to the way they viewed the adolescent brain.

Our study indicates that negative public perceptions of the “teenage brain” may well become self-fulfilling prophecies: “Planning my homework? I can’t do that with my teenage brain.” It is therefore important to focus greater attention on creative young social activists and less on young binge drinkers.

The Teenage Brain: Public Perceptions of Neurocognitive Development during Adolescence. Sibel Altikulaç, Nikki C. Lee, Chiel van der Veen, Ilona Benneker, Lydia Krabbendam, and Nienke van Atteveldt. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 0 0:0, 1-21

Weekly newsletter

Newsletter icon