More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Teen Brains Not Ready to Assess Risky Behaviors
Friday, April 06, 2007

According to a recent review of accumulated neurological research, society has overestimated the adolescent brain's ability to process legal and social standards, as well as warnings from parents and school officials, and use them as a guide to avoiding unhealthy behaviors like drug use and unprotected sex. Previous opinions held that, by age 18, adolescents had evolved into adults, not only in the legal sense but also in terms of their moral and intellectual capacities. Research in recent years, however, has disproven that assumption, showing us that the brain continues to develop well into young adulthood and that the neurological connections driving the decision-making process are not as strong at this age. As many times as we drill certain ideas into their brains, teens are very likely to discard them when in the presence of peers behaving badly.

Psychologist Laurence Steinberg believes that our society currently allows teenagers too much free reign over their own lifestyle choices, expecting them to measure up to impossible standards and not sufficiently regulating and punishing their destructive behaviors. He advocates such measures as raising the legal age at which one may begin to drive and setting higher prices on cigarettes. In addition to these regulations, he believes that stricter enforcement of existing laws regarding alcohol and other drugs is essential. Attempting to curb risky behaviors through education, he argues, is simply not as effective, because teens are not ready to be held responsible for drawing the appropriate connections and modifying their behaviors in turn. While it may not be obvious from his statements on this matter, Steinberg has made his name as a youth advocate; in the past he has been involved in important legal arguments related to the immaturity of the teenage brain. His testimony was used most significantly in a 2005 case before the United States Supreme Court in which the court ruled that applying the death penalty to minors amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Noted neurological researcher Jay Giedd explains the cognitive maturation process in more detail: the brain produces far too many cells to fit in its limited space, gradually eliminating the least useful groups and creating functional patterns that will determine future behavior and personality traits. Studies have long displayed the negative changes engendered by drug and alcohol abuse at this crucial stage of development. Unfortunately, this most vulnerable period is also when teens are most likely to experiment with such detrimental behaviors. Giedd sums up the circuitous tragedy, stating that teens are not, so to speak, unintelligent, but that:

It's sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built...Sometimes when I'm working with teens, I actually show them these brain development curves, how they peak at puberty and then prune down and try to reason with them that if they're doing drugs or alcohol that evening, it may not just be affecting their brains for that night or even for that weekend, but for the next 80 years of their life.

Still, Giedd says, we should take into consideration the amazing plasticity of the human brain and avoid discounting adolescents without allowing for their often astonishing ability to change. The fact that they display poor judgement early in life does not predispose them to a life of crime or declining health. Genetics, while an important determining factor, do not preclude the possibility of reform or good behavior. The most effective method of containment would seem to be some kind of balance: while we cannot continue to be overly lenient in certain matters, dismissing serious offences or unhealthy habits with a "kids will be kids" philosophy, we also cannot hold them to the same standards as adults, and we have to recognize their inherent abilities to learn and adapt. Giedd poses the issue's most important rhetorical question: What can we do to help the teen optimize the development of their own brain? Continuing research may allow us to answer that question soon.
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