Research: Brain to Blame for Teen Risks

April 7, 2007 — -- Parents have long tried to teach their teenagers about the dangers of sex, drugs and dangerous driving. A new analysis of brain research shows why they have found it so difficult.

The review from Temple University found adolescents' biology may have a more powerful influence on their behavior than education.

Psychologist Laurence Steinberg, who conducted the survey, said teens' minds aren't fully developed, making programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and abstinence-only sex education ineffective.

"For sometime between puberty and adulthood, kids are much more inclined to go after rewards," said Steinberg, who analyzed 10 years of research on the subject. "Risk taking is one of the ways that kids satisfy this urge."

Seeking pleasure from risk taking is one of the reasons why adolescents experiment with drugs, fall in love and drive fast, Steinberg said.

According to the analysis, teens may be well aware of the consequences of risky behavior, but can't override urge to seek thrills. Adolescence, the survey concludes, is a time when two parts of the brain compete against each other -- the socioemotional and cognitive networks -- and the former wins.

Research by Steinberg and others suggests that during this second decade of life people are more vulnerable to peer pressure. For a teenager, the desire to take risks, fit in or please their friends can override good judgement and a parent's rules.

The Power of Peers

Psychoanalyst Dr. Bethany Marshall said that Steinberg's review coincides with what she's seen in the real world. Teenagers are heavily influenced by their peers, and are more apt to make risky decisions when their friends are watching.

Neurological researchers have found that the brain doesn't fully mature until after age 18. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that the part of the brain that inhibits risky behavior doesn't fully develop until age 25.

Therefore, the nation's laws, Steinberg asserts, should coincide with teens' ability to cope with responsibility.

"We should create an environment in which kids are less likely to harm themselves," Steinberg said. "Raising the driving age would be a much more effective way at reducing mortalities than increasing education."

Already, brain development research has been cited in laws aimed at young people. Last year, Virginia banned cell phone use by drivers under 18.

Programs such as D.A.R.E. are based on the idea that drug use can be prevented with education. But this new survey suggests education alone can't overcome the biology of the brain. Steinberg says the only way to reduce teen's risk taking is to control their behavior through tougher laws and parental control.

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