Why Teenagers Break the Rules

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-06 23:11

Scientists have found that the brains of teenagers may not be developed enough for them to be able to tell which things are more important and which aren’t.

Why are teenagers seemingly unable to look at risks and rewards the same way that adults do?



These findings aren’t really surprising, but it can give valuable insight into the workings of teenage minds. Teenagers, for example, may know that certain behaviors are fun but risky, but they’ll do it anyway. They may also be able to understand how important final exams or college applications are. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll put in the necessary time and effort to prepare for these things. Adults, meanwhile, know that when the stakes are high or the rewards are great, time and effort will be necessary.


According to a new study, this may indicate that the more developed adult brain is more capable of assessing the importance of certain tasks, while teenage brains have not yet developed the capability to do the same thing.

Risks and Rewards

Teenage brains are still developing.



To assess how teenagers and adults behave with regard to evaluating risks and rewards, researchers had volunteers between the ages 13 to 20 play a computer game while in a fMRI scanner. The participants can earn 20 cents for a correct response, but they can lose 10 cents because of an incorrect response. In other rounds of the game, however, the stakes and rewards are higher. Participants can earn a dollar for a correct response, but they can lose 50 cents for an incorrect one.


The researchers found that the older participants were able to perform better at the game as the stakes and rewards got higher. However, the younger participants didn’t adjust their performance or play the game any differently once the stakes and rewards changed.  “Interestingly,” says researcher Catherine Insel, “the ability to adjust performance according to the stakes at play emerged gradually across adolescence.”


Brain scans from the fMRI revealed that brain development was the main factor in how much the participants improved their performance in the game. There is a region in the brain called the corticostriatal network, which serves as a connector between areas involving behavior control. The corticostriatal network doesn’t fully develop until at least the age of 25.

The Growing Brain

The brain development of teenagers should be taken into account when it comes to academic testing practices.



''This means that as teens age, they become better at adjusting brain connectivity across motivational contexts, which in turn allows them to do better when working towards a high-value goal,'' explains Insel.


Thus, if you’re a teenager or a young adult under the age of 25 and you feel like you’re not really making good choices, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not that you’re bad at “adulting”, or that you’re too immature. It may simply mean that your brain is still developing. Also, it’s worth noting that the connections between the various parts of the brain can take years to develop. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like planning and controlling emotions, is also the last part of the brain to reach full development.


The study also suggests that it may be counterproductive to assess a teenager’s scholastic performance in one big final exam. Since a teenager’s brain is still developing, it may be better to conduct smaller exams throughout the year.

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