Good kids who do dumb things with their friends

Parents of teenagers may frequently find themselves asking their children “What was going through your head?” New research from Temple University indicates that their friends may be to blame.

From the NY Times Well blog:

Teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.

In the study, teenagers and adults played a game with the goal of completing a driving mission in as little time as possible. In the game, participants had to make decisions such as whether to run a yellow light that could improve their time but also increased their chance of a crash. The participants each ran through the game alone and again after being told that two of their friends were watching them while they played. The results?:

Among adults and college students, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking, regardless of  whether friends were watching. But the young teenagers ran about 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. And notably, the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activity when they were playing in view of their friends. It was as if the presence of friends, even in the next room, prompted the brain’s reward system to drown out any warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward.

What’s a parent to do? Study co-author (and author of the book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25) Laurence Steinberg, quoted in the Times article, says:

All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends. The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.

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