During adolescence, the brain is still developing, and experiences increased synapse formation (Berk, 2014). The links between the two hemispheres and other parts of the brain proliferate resulting in increased “executive function” development (Berk, 2014). However, the parts of the brain responsible for self-regulation and inhibition are more excitatory than those in adults which leads to the dramatic responses teenagers experience to certain stimuli (Berk, 2014). Both negative and positive emotions and reactions are felt and exhibited more intensely in teenagers than adults (Berk, 2014). Because executive function is not fully developed, adolescents do not always make the best choices (Berk, 2014). The teenaged brain is the main culprit when it comes to explaining the seemingly reckless behavior of adolescents in the United States (Berk, 2014).
Although the developing brain is responsible for how teenagers act, there are other factors that increase the likelihood of risk-taking behavior. Issues with sleep have been linked to risk-taking behavior in American teenagers (Thomas, Monahan, Lukowski, & Cauffman, 2015). Lack of sleep in teenagers is also a contributing factor to issues with working memory which has a negative impact on impulse control (Thomas, et al., 2015). For example, a sleep-deprived teenager faced with a decision to use recreational drugs with friends may be more inclined to try them than an agemate with no sleep issues. Studies have shown that teens with better sleep habits performed better on tasks associated with working memory and impulse control (Thomas, et, al., 2015).
Another impulse control issue associated with adolescent risk-taking behaviors are those involving sexual behavior (Baams, Dubas, Overbeek, & van Aken, 2015). Adolescents are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, that their late adolescent, early adult counterparts (Berk, 2014). Twenty percent of sexually active American teens do no use protection during sexual encounters (Berk, 2014). Most sexually active adolescents disregard the consequences of unprotected sex and adopt an attitude of optimism bias when considering their role in this risky behavior (Berk, 2014). An explanation for this willingness to participate in unprotected sex is the development of sexual characteristics and the role of hormones during puberty (Baams, et al., 2015).
Reaching puberty earlier than other peers is also a contributing factor to risky sexual behavior (Baams, et al., 2015). Adolescent females who reached puberty early were more likely to experience low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety than females who matured later (Berk, 2014). This lower self-image seems to be a contributing factor in adolescent females who participate in sexual behaviors sooner than their peers (Baams, et al., 2015). The same early maturation in male adolescents has opposite effects on self-image (Berk, 2014). Early-blooming males exhibited more confidence and acceptance from their peers than females who matured early (Berk, 2014). Early puberty in males is also linked to early participation in risky sexual behaviors (Baams, et, al., 2015).
There are ways to decrease the likelihood of an adolescent participating in risk-taking behaviors like drug use and unprotected sex. For instance, parents and guardians should speak with adolescents and explain the importance of sleep (Berk, 2014). Sleep not only increases executive function skills, but it is necessary for developing brains to progress in a healthy way (Thomas, 2015). With the absence of sleep deprivation, teens are less likely to make poor choices to participate in drug use or have unprotected sex. One way to decrease the likelihood of risky sexual behavior is to speak openly and honestly with adolescents about the consequences of STI’s, and pregnancy (Berk, 2014). Some teens report knowing little to know information about sex; both the good and the bad (Baams, et al., 2015). Since the American education system is not unified on how to approach sexual education, it is up to parents and guardians to provide the information and to have an open discussion about all topics.
Baams, L., Dubas, J. S., Overbeek, G., & Van Aken, M. G. (2015). Transitions in body and behavior: A meta-analytic study on the relationship between pubertal development and adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(6), 586–598. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.11.019
Berk, L.E. (2014). Development through the lifespan (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Thomas, A. A., Monahan, K. M., Lukowski, A. A., & Cauffman, E. C. (2015). Sleep problems across development: A pathway to adolescent risk taking through working memory. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(2), 447–464. doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0179-7