Influences of Risk Taking Behaviors During Adolescence
Influences of Risk Taking Behaviors During Adolescence
The fact is, risk taking behaviors increase during adolescence, but the reason behind this behavioral change is still up for debate. There is speculation that risk taking behavior is a result of hormonal changes during puberty, and the brain’s socio emotional system seeks to increase reward. When adolescents are around their peers, there is an increase in the amount of risk taking behavior, seemingly fueled by the remodeling of the dopaminergic system within the adolescent’s brain. This behavior begins to decline as the adolescent develops into an adult, because of the changes within the cognitive control system of the brain. The cognitive control system expands self-regulation within the individual. While many people only see risky behavior that teens engage in as being fueled by peer pressure, socio-economic status, and status within their own group, studies have shown that this behavior is actually influenced by physiological and biological factors within the brain.
Experts tend to agree that the greatest threat to adolescent health is the preventable risk taking behaviors that they engage in. These behaviors include self-inflicted harm, vehicle accidents, drug and alcohol use and potential abuse, violence, and unsafe sexual behavior. Automobile accidents alone are the cause for almost fifty percent of the deaths among American adolescents.
The age at which young people begin risky behavior varies, however, between the ages of 18-21, these behaviors are most prevalent. Generally speaking, adolescents as well as young adults tend to be more at risk than people over the age of 25 to engage in risky endeavors such as casual sex, violent crimes, criminal behavior, as well as alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. Among these behaviors, this age group is also more likely to be involved in a serious auto accident which tends to be caused by driving under the influence of substances, and risky driving. The prevalence of risky behavior during adolescence can be used as an indicator of risky behavior in adulthood. Reducing the number of adolescents engaging in this behavior would make serious improvements to the health of the population as it may keep these individuals from acting in unacceptable ways during adulthood.
One of the approaches used to reduce the risk taking behaviors young people engage in is education based programs in school. “There is reason to be highly skeptical about the effectiveness of this effort, however, according to AddHealth data, virtually all American adolescents have received some form of educational intervention designed to reduce smoking, drinking, drug use, and unprotected sex, but the most recent report of findings from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicates that more than one-third of high school students did not use a condom either the first time or even the last time they had sexual intercourse, and that during the year prior to the survey, nearly 30% of adolescents rode in a car driven by someone who had been drinking, more than 25% reported multiple episodes of binge drinking, and nearly 25% were regular cigarette smokers.” (Steinburg, 2008). Research on these programs shows that they are successful for changing the adolescent’s knowledge, but not as successful at changing their behavior. Each year, over $1 billion is spent on educational interventions aimed at teaching young people about the dangers of risky behavior, but unfortunately they make a minimal impact on how adolescence behave. It is surprising to know that the huge amount of tax dollars that are spent on health, sex, and drivers education programs just do not work.
Adolescents are smart, and logical, but still engage in risky behaviors. This fact has led both scientists and practitioners to question what changes take place to cause this behavior. As adolescents continue to age, these behaviors wane, this observation makes one question why the transition into adulthood changes attitudes and risk taking behaviors. There is an enormous scientific interest in the developing brain of an adolescent, and scientists have been successful at mapping out the changes within the brain’s structure during the transition from adolescence into adulthood. They are also able to see differences within the brain’s activity during this stage of development. Unfortunately, while scientists knowledge of structural changes within the brain is fairly vast, actually finding what the link is between the neurobiological changes and the risky behavior that adolescents engage in is still not understood. There is only reasonable speculation on why adolescents act the way that they do, and put themselves in harm’s way. There is a causal link between behavioral development and synaptic pruning within the prefrontal cortex, but lacks hard data correlating these developments, and fails to demonstrate that the brain actually influences behavior.
During the mid 1980’s, scientists did studies of the relationship between hormones and behavior during adolescence. Salivary assays were relatively inexpensive, and became the go-to method for scientists to study this relationship. However, a direct link between hormones and behavior became difficult and less productive than scientist had speculated, and hormones were shown to have minimal effects on the behavior of adolescents, whereas environment played a bigger role. It is for this exact reason that it is speculated that the relationship between brain and behavior may also be just as complex as the relationship between hormones and behavior.
There is speculation that the increase of risk taking behavior as children reach adolescence is primary due to seeking sensations, and is potentially linked the the changes in dopaminergic patterns as a child reaches puberty. There is evidence showing that increases in sensation seeking behavior is linked more with pubertal maturation instead of age, which argues against the idea that risk taking behaviors are only cognitive. There are important changes of the dopaminergic system during puberty, and given the role that dopaminergic activity plays in the regulation of motivation, it is likely that these changes can shape the development of socio-emotional behaviors in adolescence. “The processing of social and emotional information relies on the networks underlying coding for affective and motivational processes. Key nodes of these networks comprise the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and superior temporal sulcus. These regions have been implicated in diverse aspects of social processing, including the recognition of socially relevant stimuli such as faces, biological motion, social judgments, judging attractiveness, evaluating race, assessing other’s intentions, social reasoning, and many other aspects of social processing.” (Steinburg, 2008). The Ventral striatum and medial prefrontal portion of the brain are active during exposure to social stimulus as well as being sensitive to differences in reward magnitude, and there appears to be more activation when the adolescents being studied gained their peer’s acceptance. This suggests that being accepted by one’s peers seems to be processed within the brain the same way that other rewards are processed. These findings may help explain why adolescents engage in more risk taking behavior when they are with their peer group.
During the remodeling of the dopaminergic system, beginning at about 9 or 10 years old, there is a reduction of density in the dopamine receptors located in the striatum and prefrontal cortex. This change is more prevalent within males than it is within females. (Sisk , 2004; Risk & Zehr, 2005; Teicher, Anderson, & Hostetter, Jr., 1995). It has been speculated that the changes of dopamine receptors is an underlying factor in the changes of reward processing exhibited by adolescents. Dopamine is critical within the brain’s reward center, changes such as increases, decreases, and redistribution of this neurotransmitter is most concentrated around the time of puberty. One theory of why adolescents behave in risky ways is that through a temporary imbalance of the dopamine receptors located in the prefrontal cortex creates a type of reward deficiency. People who have this type of deficiency have been known to seek out extreme behaviors that will activate their reward center. While the idea that a reward deficiency may explain why adolescents behave in risky ways, it is however, undermined by several other studies “that indicate elevated activity in subcortical regions, especially the accumbens, in response to reward during adolescence.” (Ernst et al., 2005; Galvan et al., 2005). An alternative suggestion is that an increase in sensation seeking activities that adolescents engage in is not because of a dopamine deficit, but instead because of the temporary loss of their “buffering capacity” that is linked with the decrease or loss of dopamine auto-receptors within the prefrontal cortex which serves as a regulatory negative-feedback function during childhood. (Dumont et al., 2004, cited in Ernst & Spear, in press). A loss of buffering could result in a loss of inhibitory control thus leading to unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviors.
It makes sense, in an evolutionary sense, for the emergence of certain behaviors to start at the onset of puberty, especially for males. Sensation seeking behavior influences people to venture into unknown territory, but this risk taking behavior may have been necessary for survival and reproduction. To our ancestors, a willingness to take certain risks may have had its advantages, and the refusal to participate in risk taking behaviors may have proven to be more dangerous for survival and the aforementioned reproduction. Natural selection has been proven to favor at least some risky behavior when adolescence begins, especially when sexual reproduction becomes possible. Risk taking behavior also shows dominance and the willingness to take risks which may have been a way for achieving dominance and maintaining it within a social hierarchy. Ancestral risk takers may also have been better able at providing for themselves and their offspring, as well as have better reproductive success by keeping other males away. By delaying risk taking behaviors until puberty, individuals are more adult like in both strength and appearance. While this is all speculation about our distant relatives, in contemporary society there is evidence of adolescent females finding dominant and aggressive males as more sexually attractive.
Studies have shown that gonadal steroids lend themselves to strong influences on adolescent’s memories of social situations, information, and bonding. Oxytocin also plays an important part in the limbic system of adolescents, and is best known for promoting social bonding, maternal behavior, and love. Oxytocin is also an important factor in regulation of memory and social stimuli. It appears that gonadal hormones plays an important role as they effect how the structures the adolescent’s socio-emotional systems will respond to social stimuli. These hormonal changes are indicative as to why adolescents show a higher rate of activity within their limbic, para-limbic, and medial prefrontal areas when responding to both an emotional as well as social stimulus. Also, this explains the reasons behind the heightened awareness that adolescents have of others’ opinions and demonstrate “imaginary audience” behavior.
Adolescent risk taking is much more likely to happen in a group setting, an example of this is that an adolescent is much more likely to use drugs or alcohol if the people within their group are engaging in this type of behavior. Additionally, adolescents are far more likely to engage in sexual activity if their friends are doing so as well, and the FBI has compiled strong evidence that shows adolescents are much more likely to commit crimes within a group rather than by themselves. It is believed that young people are more likely to commit crimes in a group setting because they tend to spend the majority of their time within their peer groups. Another opinion is that being around peers activates neural networks involved in reward processing, thus compelling adolescents towards sensation seeking.
It seems likely that puberty is associated with the increase of sensation seeking which is due to the changes within reward salience as well as sensitivity. Additionally, this neural transformation works hand in hand with an increase of oxytocin receptors which is also in the socio-emotional system. These factors help adolescents’ become more aware of, and able to remember social information. Consequently, these changes cause adolescents to engage in risks as a way to gain rewards, a behavior that is exacerbated by peers. This behavior is most prevalent within the first half of adolescence, and peaks around the age of 15. After age 15, there is a decline in the type of behavior. There is a lack of evidence that links human biology with human behavior, however, because certain neurobiological and behavioral changes happen at the same time in development, there is a strong suggestion that there is, in fact, a connection between the two of them. More research is needed to examine the brain’s structural 6 function and the relationship it has to risky behavior in order to definitively answer the question of why young people find themselves in sometimes dangerous, yet self inflicted situations. Not all adolescents demonstrate an inclination towards risky behavior, for these individuals, their affinity for risk taking behavior is much more subtle and manageable. As a whole, these adolescents are generally more prone to fear and anxiety, and as infants were highly active, exhibiting above average amounts of motor activity and crying. These individuals were also shown to be more introverted, morose, and that their counterparts. On the other end of the spectrum, others are more prone to high intensity feelings that have the potential to lead to emotionally charged behaviors, and impulsive decisions causing seemingly intelligent adolescents to act in completely outrageous ways. Oddly enough, early maturation creates a greater risk of risk seeking behaviors, but many factors influence these behaviors. Other situations that can cause an adolescent to engage in unsafe behaviors are; the degree in which behavior is monitored by caregivers, availability of substances, and temperament. These factors all have the capability to amplify an adolescent’s tendency for acting in unacceptable ways.
Two potential neurobiological reason that may contribute to the decline of risk taking behavior as an adolescent matures into an adult could be changes in the dopaminergic system, however, a more probably reason for this decline is the development of the individual’s regulatory capacities that develop during adolescence and during the 20s. There is a large amount of evidence to suggest that these higher levels of cognition are supported by the newly “rewired” brain system. This cognition is probably the main reason why there is is decline in risky behaviors. It is believed that better control over emotion and cognition are permitted by the maturation of the neural networks between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. There seem to be, at this time, three significantly important changes within the structure of the brain that take place during adolescence. 1) The decrease of gray matter present in prefrontal areas, which indicates synaptic pruning. During this phase, the body discards the unused neuronal connections which happens predominantly during preadolescence, this is also the phase when significant improvements are seen within logical reasoning as well as informational processing. The majority of this neuronal pruning is completed by mid-adolescence, however, some improvements will continue until the early 20s. The changes that take place after mid-adolescence are limited and are generally only seen when an individual is studied and subjected to demanding cognitive situations. There tends to be a lack of improvement in verbal fluency and memory after an individual turns 16. 2) While gray matter decreases, white matter is increasing within these same areas indicative of myelination. Myelination, unlike pruning, will continue to occur in the second and third decade of life. 3) As with the expanding areas of white matter, there is also an increase in connections within the cortical areas as well as between the different parts of the prefrontal cortex. This third change is associated with an improvement in emotional regulation, and coordination between affect and cognition. Self reported impulse control continues to develop well into the mid 20s.
Changes within the brain’s connectivity eventually leads to a decline in peer influence. As the ability to control cognition improves, impulsive behavior in the presence of peers is diminishes. During adolescent maturation and development into adulthood, this cognitive control continues to develop, and self control takes over the risk seeking behavior that once dominated the youth’s mind. This cognitive control has been shown to be greater in young people who have a stronger connection between their frontal and striatal areas of their brain. However, peer influence is still a substantial force at least until the age of 18, but evidence shows that it is still present in 20 year olds.
In a way, a risk-taking youth could potentially be described as the result of socio-emotional and cognitive control interactions. Adolescence and puberty is a time when the socio-emotional aspect of their personality becomes more apparent, but cognitive control strengthens slowly and gradually. The socio-emotional network during adolescence doesn’t not continually stay activated, as when an individual is by themselves, or not emotionally “worked up”. In fact, cognitive control seems to be a strong enough force that it is able to regulate certain controls even during the beginning stages of adolescence. However, when an adolescent is around their peers, they become emotionally excited, and cognitive control no longer has the capability of stopping risky behavior.
As previously noted, educational programs aimed at reducing the number of adolescents who engage in risky behaviors have limited success. Other ways that adults have tried to reduce risk taking behavior is raising cigarette prices, stricter laws regarding alcohol sales, having accessible mental health clinics, as well as contraception, and raising the age in which one can get their drivers license to 18. These strategies would probably be a lot more effective in lowering adolescent substance use and abuse, accidental pregnancies, and vehicular fatalities. The attempts to educated adolescents on the consequences of their actions have not shown to make them wiser, or able to develop proper judgement. It takes time for people to mature, and adolescents are unfortunately unable to have forethought into their future, a skill that comes with maturation. Risk taking behaviors are a normal, inevitable, and more than likely driven by the individual’s biology. Therefore, there is not much that can be done to sway their attitudes as this shift in behavior probably has roots in evolutionary development. No two individuals are alike, and the current strategies for educating adolescents lumps them all together, and only uses a few types of programs. In order to keep our youth safe, and out of harm’s way, strategies for doing so need to be on an individual basis. Some adolescents may do well with an educational program, while others need a more comprehensive approach such as raising the age that they are able to drive, or making contraception available. Also, parental influence is extremely important during adolescence. By opening up a dialog, and forming a trusting bond between parent and child, the adolescent feels safe telling their parent or guardian about what is happening in their lives. Taking the shame and guilt out of what adolescents have done, or feel like doing is another way that adults can monitor, and then act on strategies for keeping their adolescents safe, even if those behaviors are unacceptable. Student counselors are also in a perfect position to help youths on individual levels, something that current programs do not offer. It takes time for adolescents to gain knowledge and forethought, but by developing trust, acceptance, and individualizing a plan of action, we can keep our children safe.