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The Science of Risky Teen Behavior

On average, teens are more likely to take risks than any other age group. Some risks can be good, like going for the final goal of the game with seconds to spare. Other risks aren’t so good, like driving while distracted. In fact, many causes of teen injury and death are linked to taking dangerous risks.

One young NIDA scientist—Nina Lauharatanahirun (lao-HAH-rah-tah-nah-he-run) at Virginia Tech—remembers being a teen and deciding what risks to take. She wanted to find out: Why are teens especially risk-prone?

Real-life risk

Earlier research has shown that the answer may be all in your head—in your brain, to be exact. During the teen years, the brain’s prefrontal regions, which help reduce risk-taking behavior, are still developing. If there are problems with those regions’ development, a person could be more likely to take bigger risks.

Participants in Lauharatanahirun’s study are presented with different gambling scenarios involving money and are asked to pick one. Some of the scenarios have known chances of winning, and some don’t. The study uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the participants’ brain activity while they make these decisions.

Estimating risk

fMRI can take pictures inside the brain without using radiation. Based on a participant’s choices and their brain activity during the task, the study estimates the person’s willingness to take risks in exchange for a possible reward.

Participants in the study are also asked to estimate how likely a potential consequence of a real-world scenario is, like the chance of getting injured while playing a sport. Once they’ve given their estimation, they’re told the actual likelihood. All of these measurements allow Lauharatanahirun to learn more about the teen brain and risk-taking.

Reducing unwise risks

She says, “Risky teen behavior is a serious public health issue. Most mental health and substance use disorders begin in adolescence and aren’t always preventable—but risky behavior is! I hope our study will help teens who are most vulnerable to health problems because of their willingness to take excessive risks.”

The next time you’re faced with a risky decision, ask yourself: “Is the risk worth it?”


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