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Risky behaviour linked to puberty

A new study on brain and behaviour hints that the network responsible for impulse control doesn't reach maturity until adulthood.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 24, 2007 14:17 IST

Taking risks may be an integral part of being a teenager, an expert on child development says. While the part of the brain that seeks social and emotional rewards kicks into overdrive during adolescence, Dr Laurence Steinberg of Temple University in Philadelphia explains in a new analysis of research on brain and behaviour, the network responsible for impulse control doesn't reach maturity until adulthood.

This means efforts to educate kids about the consequences of their risky behaviour -- from driver's education to abstinence-only sexed - are unlikely to be effective, says Steinberg.

The best approach to helping teens stay safe probably involves controlling opportunities for them to get in trouble by enforcing laws restricting the sale of alcohol to minors, expanding access to mental health care and birth control, raising the driving age and good old fashioned parenting, he reports in the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

"Kids during adolescence still need a lot of parental control and monitoring," Steinberg continued. The teen years, he adds, are not the time for parents to "check out."

Ignorance or a sense of invulnerability doesn't explain why teens take risks, he notes, because studies have shown that they are just as good as adults in understanding risks and their vulnerability to them.

But during puberty, Steinberg adds, a system he calls the "socioemotional network" that pushes kids to seek novelty and take risks becomes activated, especially in the company of peers. While the biological reasons behind this shift are not clear, major changes in the dopamine system are known to occur in adolescence.

In evolutionary terms, these changes likely encouraged newly sexually mature humans to have sex, thus helping to perpetuate the species, he adds.

"There's a reason why you do want people to be kind of oriented toward reward and novelty during adolescence. You just don't want them to satisfy those urges in unhealthy ways."

Meanwhile, the cognitive control system responsible for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, delaying gratification and withstanding peer pressure doesn't fully mature until young people reach their 20s, Steinberg adds. "Because kids may not be capable of regulating themselves, they need the help and support of adults to do some of this," he explains.

Trying to make teens "wiser, less impulsive, or less shortsighted" is unlikely to stop them from taking risks. "Some things just take time to develop, and, like it or not, mature judgment is probably one of them".