Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescence
Increased risk- taking behaviors are commonly seen in teens and young adults, during their adolescent years. Adolescence is often a time of poor judgement making and increase in risky behaviors like drinking, drug experimentation, and sexual exploration. In spite of knowing the possibility of bad consequences, most adolescents still commit the same risky acts. So, the question parents and adults often ask is: why is risk-taking behaviors most common in adolescence? What is different in adolescence that distinguishes it from childhood and adulthood?
The Adolescent Brain
Many neurological and behavioral studies have been done to understand the psyche of adolescents regarding risk-taking behavior. Most answers point towards the brain of adolescents. The brain in adolescence is different that of a child and that of an adult; it is in a unique stage of development and it affects the behavior of teens. The brain studies of adolescents reported the fact that brain is not entirely developed during adolescence. Some of the functions of brain are fully functional while others are not yet developed. Reward and control systems are those concerned with risk-taking behaviors. The reward system makes a personal ‘high’ and gives an immense joy in doing certain behaviors. The reward system produces feelings of satisfaction, which may be a reason behind some high-risk behaviors. In healthy adults, this reward system is balanced by a control system. No such thing is seen in adolescents; the control system is not fully developed. A reward system run amuck appears to be the main culprit of adolescent risk-taking behavior.
Another important factor in the brain that modulates risk-taking behaviors is the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for making teens satisfied when they do some daring act, from dangerous bike or ski stunts, to reckless driving or drug experimentation. There are less dopamine-inhibiting neurons in the adolescent brain, so dopamine levels run high.
Addiction is related to dopamine levels. People with high dopamine take drugs tend toward risky behavior. People with active drug addiction tend to have high levels of dopamine due to drugs’ effects. Hence, both of these factors are closely interrelated. Alcohol and substance abuse is the most common risky behavior in adolescents, although sexual exploration is also very common; both can lead to increases in dopamine levels. A constant increase in dopamine may lead to cravings for risky behaviors, which give feelings of joy without caring for consequences.
Dopamine’s Influence on Risk-Taking Behavior
Whenever a risky-behavior is performed, there is a rush of dopamine in the brain and the person feels excitement. The effects of drugs can do the same thing, which can lead to drug abuse. When an adolescent abuses alcohol, prescription, or illicit drugs, their bodies start craving more to reach the level of satiety due to the phenomenon known as drug tolerance. Cravings and heightened drug tolerance lead to increased drug-seeking behavior, thus beginning the addiction cycle.
Risk-taking behaviors alone are not considered addictive, since the adolescent phase resolves, anywhere between 18-22 years old. These behaviors can be controlled with adequate monitoring and counseling by the parents and teachers. Involvement in healthy and rewarding activities, such as sports, playing an instrument, and community activities have been shown to provide a protective property in reducing dangerous risk-behaviors. Risk-taking combined with drug abuse, lead to addiction and further physical and mental health problems. Understanding that risk-taking behavior is a natural process in the life-stage development is important so that healthy but rewarding behaviors can be learned.