Risk taking behaviour during adolescence

This post is also available in Dutch.

Adolescence is a period of physical and psychological maturation into adulthood. Although adolescents become more capable in understanding the consequences of their behaviours, they engage more often in risky behaviours such as violence, alcohol and substance abuse. Why do adolescents take more risks than individuals who are younger or older than themselves?

512px-Teens_sharing_a_songImage by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget [CC BY 2.0]

Adolescence is a transitional period of physical and psychological maturation to being an adult and having responsibilities. This period begins in puberty and ends in adulthood. Compared to children, adolescents have better logical reasoning and decision making skills, and can better cope with physical stress. Despite these improvements, this very same period is paradoxically marked by a 200 percent increase in morbidity and mortality rates. Alcohol and substance abuse, violence, unsafe sex and other risky behaviours are some of the associated causes.  It seems that adolescents are more prone to risk-taking, sensation-seeking and reckless behaviours.

Why do adolescents take more risks?
Our brain develops not only in the early years but also matures and optimizes its neuronal structures and connections until we reach the age of 25. Particularly important here are the maturational changes in the prefrontal cortex which is a key region for the control of executive functions such as planning, self-regulation, reasoning, emotional control, and decision making. Part of the vulnerability to risky adolescent behaviours may be therefore associated to maturational changes in the prefrontal cortex.

Maturation of the prefrontal cortex
Around the age of 11, the prefrontal cortex begins to engage in a period where certain neuronal connections are eliminated, also referred to as the pruning of neuronal axons. Pruning is viewed to be necessary to fine-tune the communication between different brain regions where simpler neuronal connections (formed at childhood) are removed while more complex and efficient connections are promoted and reinforced. Currently, the exact meaning of these neurobiological changes is not fully understood. Nevertheless, many researchers argue that the risky behaviours observed during adolescence are a result of a not fully-matured prefrontal cortex, as well as the nature of the connections between prefrontal cortex and other regions playing a role in emotion and motivation, such as the amygdala and the ventral striatum. As a consequence, risks are not adequately assessed and control over risk taking behaviours fails.

Not all adolescents show risk-taking behaviours
Although all of us undergo neural maturation, some adolescent individuals in specific social contexts may be more vulnerable to risky behaviours than others. Hence, it is important to also consider other factors that play a role in the risky behaviours of adolescents such as the social and biological context. This includes factors like gender and hormonal changes, as well as relationships with peers and family members, and the school environment.

The take home message is that during adolescence we might be more vulnerable to risky behaviours than in other periods of our lives because our brains are in a phase of reconstruction in which non-optimal decisions are more likely to occur.

This blog was written by Mahur. Edited by Roselyne.

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