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Psychologists Explain Why Teens Take More Risks in Front of Peers

Update Date: Apr 18, 2013 09:15 AM EDT

Previous research shows that like adults, teens have the knowledge and ability to make competent decisions about risk.  So, why are teens more likely than children or adults to engage in risky behaviors like experimenting with drugs, having unprotected sex and driving recklessly.

Scientists from the Temple University and Duke University believe that teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors because of the unique effect peer influence has on their still-developing brains, according to a report published in the special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Researchers say because teens spend an increasing amount of time with their peers, the feedback they get from their friends and classmates may alter their brain's reward system to be more sensitive to the reward value of risky behavior.

Researchers explain that this sensitivity leads teenagers to focus on the short-term benefits of risky choices over the long-term value of safe alternatives.

"If adolescents made all of their decisions involving drinking, driving, dalliances, and delinquency in the cool isolation of an experimenter's testing room, those decisions would likely be as risk averse as those of adults," Laurence Steinberg and his team wrote in the study. "But therein lies the rub: Teenagers spend a remarkable amount of time in the company of other teenagers."

Numerous studies have shown that the company of other teenagers increases the likelihood adolescent risk taking.

In 2009, researchers found that 14-year-olds took twice as many risks in a driving simulation game when they were tested with peers than when they were tested alone.  Researchers also found that older teens' driving was about 50 percent riskier in the company of peers.

A more recent study found that teenagers, but not adults, took more risks when their peers were observing them.  Teens also showed greater activation of brain structures involved in evaluating rewards like the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex.

Researchers conclude that the findings all support the idea that being around peers can heighten teen's risky decision making by changing the way their brains process rewards.

B.J. Casey, guest editor of the special issue and Director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College says that rather than portraying the teen brain as somehow "defective" the researchers from the current report "paint a picture of a brain that is sculpted by both biological and experiential factors to adapt to the unique social, physical, sexual and intellectual challenges of adolescence."

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