That’s Men: Why teenagers’ behaviour makes perfect sense
Risk-taking and sensitivity to peer group pressure is a direct result of their stage of brain development
‘I would there were no age between 16 and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting . . .” grumbles a shepherd in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale.
This, according to Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, shows stereotypical attitudes to teenagers are not a modern invention.
I think teenagers are, by and large, A Good Thing. They are struggling with the whole rotten business of transitioning into adulthood and they are, sadly, more idealistic than the adults they will become.
Blakemore is a neuroscientist whose interest is in the social aspects of the adolescent brain. In recent talks she has put together the outcome of research by herself and other scientists.
In one experiment, teenagers were asked to play a video game involving driving cars. Everybody playing the game chalked up a number of crashes. But when a couple of friends were put standing behind the teenagers as they played, the crash count went up significantly compared with when they played alone.
This combines two features of adolescents. One is that they are more drawn to risk than adults. The centres in the brain that link risk and reward are more sensitive in teenagers than in older people. The attraction to risk seems to apply to both genders but in different ways. Teenage boys drive too fast behind the wheel. Girls are more likely than boys to take up smoking. Both engage in risky behaviours – though one can kill you while you are still a teenager.
The second important feature of adolescence is the massive importance of the peer group. Researchers set up an online computer game in which characters passed a ball to each other.
They fixed the game so that the person they were studying was excluded by the other characters. Those excluded experienced a significant drop into negative mood regardless of their age. But the drop into negativity for teenagers was far greater than it was for adults.
Exclusion hurts teenagers more than adults, which is probably why exclusion through bullying can be lethal.
The influence of the peer group creates danger: crashes involving teenage drivers normally happen when another person of the same age is a passenger in the car.
Risk-taking by teenagers is encouraged by the way their brains are wired up.
Indeed Blakemore points out that when you put all this together, risky behaviour by teenagers makes sense.
Suppose you’re 13 and you’re offered cigarettes by your peer group. You know that cigarettes are bad for you. But you also greatly fear rejection by your peer group. In that case, the pressure to have a cigarette is almost irresistible.
There’s also the question of teenagers misinterpreting other people’s motives. They often assume adults are criticising them when they are actually just trying to have a conversation with them.
However, neuroscience research suggests that the brain functions which help us to work out what somebody else is thinking and feeling are still only developing in teenagers. So they are not wilfully misinterpreting the earnest efforts of parents to offer advice – they are simply not yet very good at figuring out what other people really mean.
Much of the behaviour of teenagers, therefore, is an outcome of their stage of brain development. This puts parents in a no-win situation: for their teenagers to mature in the world, the parent must correct them. But the teenagers’ stage of development is such that they are genuinely unable to recognise that correction in the spirit in which it is offered. The result is conflict and sometimes tragedy.
(You will find talks by Prof Blakemore on ted.com and YouTube).
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas.