While the government spends billions of dollars on educational and prevention programs to persuade teens not to do things like smoke, drink or do drugs, a Temple University psychologist suggests that competing systems within the brain make adolescents more susceptible to engaging in risky or dangerous behavior, and that educational interventions alone are unlikely to be effective.

Laurence Steinberg, Distinguished University Professor and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple, outlines his argument in, "Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science," in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

"While it is probably not fair to say that none of the programs we have developed works, most of the educational efforts to persuade kids to not smoke or to not use drugs or alcohol, to engage in safe sex or to drive more safely have not been effective," says Steinberg, Director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. "There is a program here or there that works, but, by and large, we have spent billions of dollars on initiatives that have not really had much of an impact."

Steinberg says that over the past 10 years there has been a great deal of new research on adolescent brain development that he believes sheds light on why kids engage in risky and dangerous behavior, and why the educational programs or interventions that have been developed have not been especially effective. According to Steinberg, heightened risk taking in adolescence is the result of competition between two very different brain systems, the socioemotional and cognitive-control networks, that are undergoing maturation during adolescence, but along very different timetables. During the adolescence, the socioemotional system becomes more assertive during puberty, while the cognitive-control system gains strength only gradually and over a longer period of time.

The socioemotional system, which processes social and emotional information, becomes very active during puberty allowing adolescents to become more easily aroused and experience more intense emotion, and to become more sensitive to social influence.

Conversely, says Steinberg, the cognitive-control system is the part of the brain that regulates behavior and makes the ultimate decisions, but is still maturing during adolescence and into a person’s mid-20s at least.

In the article, Steinberg says that the socioemotional network is not in a state of constantly high activation during adolescence. When the socioemotional network is not highly activated -- for example, when individuals are not emotionally excited or are alone -- the cognitive-control network is strong enough to impose regulatory control over impulsive and risky behavior, even in early adolescence.

In the presence of peers, however, or in situations where emotions run high, the socioemotional network becomes sufficiently activated to diminish the regulatory effectiveness of the cognitive-control network.

"The presence of peers increases risk taking substantially among teenagers," writes Steinberg in his article. "In one of our lab’s studies, for instance, the presence of peers more than doubled the number of risks teenagers took in a video driving game. In adolescence, then, not only is more merrier -- it is also riskier."

"There is a window of vulnerability in teens between puberty and mid-to-late adolescence in which kids have already started to experience the increased arousal of the socioemotional system, but they don’t yet have a fully mature cognitive control system," he says. "Because their cognitive-control system is still not fully mature, it is more easily disrupted, especially when the socioemotional system is quite excited. And it gets excited by the presence of other people."

Steinberg advocates stricter laws and policies that would limit opportunities for immature judgment that often have harmful consequences. For example, strategies such as raising the price of cigarettes, more vigilantly enforcing laws governing the sale of alcohol, expanding adolescents’ access to mental-health and contraceptive services, or raising the driving age would likely be more effective than education in limiting adolescent smoking, substance abuse, pregnancy, and automobile fatalities.

"I don’t want people to think that education should not continue," he says. "I just think that it alone is not going to make much of a difference in deterring risky behavior. Some things just take time to develop, and, like it or not, mature judgment is probably one of them."

Source: Temple University