The Science Behind Teenage Stupidity
Adolescents are notorious for their poor judgement and inability to make sound decisions. In other words, teenagers lack common sense. This often reckless and impulsive behavior cannot merely be attributed to angsty teenage rebellion, as it actually has scientific reasoning behind it. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for impulse control and executive functions needed for decision making, is not yet fully developed during adolescent years. Furthermore, adolescents are inexperienced and base many of their decisions on social norms or how they desire to be perceived by others. The combination of these two circumstances creates the perfect storm for poor choices that tragically impact an adolescent’s well being. This reality must be taken into consideration by educators who may not realize the full extent of damage that their ill conceived lessons truly have on a young mind.
In order to fully comprehend the causes of the poor decision making that is common among adolescents, one must understand the steps involved in making a decision. Adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, explains that there are five steps in any decision making process. One must identify options, recognize their possible consequences, evaluate the impact each consequence poses, assess the probability of each outcome, and ultimately, determine the best action to take. For an adult, this process is second nature, however, there are numerous factors that interfere with a teenager’s ability to execute these steps successfully.
For example, when an adolescent is presented with an opportunity for a sexual experience, they often consciously disregard the possible devastating consequences of having unprotected sex. In their inexperienced and impulsive minds, they are not able to accurately assess the probability of an outcome or evaluate how desirable an outcome might be because hindsight is not available. This creates the ever popular, “That will never happen to me,” mindset. While the concepts of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases have been drilled into their brains, the probability that these outcomes will actually afflict them, seems slim-to-none. As a result, an overall sense of invincibility clouds their judgement. The enticement of having sex is a much greater force that dominates over the fear of taking a risk. Therefore, teens are likely to engage in unprotected sex and reap the repercussions thereof.
Conversely, for most adults, their prior experiences guide them through the process of making a decision. They review outcomes from past decisions to make informed choices in the present. Adults know that unprotected sex can yield unwanted pregancies and deadly diseases. Furthermore, a defining characteristic of teenage immaturity is their susceptibility to peer influences. In an article written by Jeanne Miller, she discusses a study conducted by Dr. B. J. Casey, a professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. In this study, participants were monitored through a brain-scanning machine while performing various tasks. The reward center of the adolescent brain responded dramatically more than that of children and adults. Casey concluded that the adolescent response to peer approval was comparable to the satisfaction they experienced when they successfully completed a task.
Another study by Halpern-Felsher concluded “…that adolescents care greatly about whether they are popular or look more grown up, and such desires to gain positive social feedback and avoid negative social consequences influences their decisions.” Adolescence is a time when individuals are beginning to experience more independence. They often begin to spend less time with their caregivers, broadening their horizons, and experiencing more autonomy. This newfound independence results in increased exposure to social pressures, such as body image standards, which in turn, creates a desire for peer validation. The inability to weigh consequences effectively and make sound decisions is impaired and overpowered by the desire to be accepted and perceived in a positive light.
While these external variables greatly influence teenage decision making abilities, a greater impact is attributed to the physiology of the brain. Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher explains, “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions, including cognition, thought, imagination, abstract thinking, planning, and impulse control.” These functions are most essential when a decision must be made. However, the gray matter that makes up this part of the brain physically decreases and is replaced by white matter as the brain matures. During this process, the functions this part of the brain is responsible for are compromised until approximately the mid-twenties. As a result, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
When all of these factors that influence decision making are considered, it is clear that adolescents are at a disadvantage when presented with important life choices. Guidance from not only their guardians, but from other influential adults in their lives, such as educators, is imperative. In fact, public school curriculum throughout the United States has become increasingly more responsible for teaching young learners about appropriate choices in many aspects of their lives. One of the most important aspects is health education. With all of these negative factors limiting a teenager’s ability to make a quality decision, it is important that these adults do not become an additional stumbling block.
The overwhelming challenges of the teenage years do not need further amplification through the misguided efforts of educators who lack proper training. When educators indoctrinate adolescents with inaccurate information, they risk encouraging their students to use that information irresponsibly. For example, the damage that occurs in the health classroom, where students are preached to on the importance of a low calorie diet, is detrimental to their health. While the intent of these educators is not malicious, the lessons do not apply to all students whose dietary needs vary vastly. Adolescents are already burdened with peer pressure and the hunger for social validation, so they use this misinformation in an effort to meet social standards. This, along with their immature brain development and lack of experience, can make it exceedingly more difficult for a teenager to navigate through the multiple steps involved in making good decisions. In this particular scenario, adolescents are highly likely to experience serious negative outcomes, such as eating disorders and the plethora of health complications that stem from them.
With all of the obstacles that prevent an adolescent from skillfully following the necessary steps in the decision making process, it is important for educators to aid in making healthy choices, rather than further complicating the issue. Fueling these challenges with inaccurate information, only leads to adolescents engaging in risky behaviors, which can have catastrophic results.