Teenagers are often thought of as irresponsible — or even reckless. But a group of local researchers recently came to a different conclusion about what's going on in the teenage brain.
Stereotypes about young people and their brains abound, and scientists have not been immune to those ideas, said Dan Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
First, it was raging hormones that explained those wacky teens. Then, Romer said, it was the fact that the prefrontal cortex doesn't fully develop until adulthood.
"We overgeneralize about them, and ... without being careful, we tend to think that all adolescents, or at least the majority of them, have similar characteristics," he said. (A small minority of teens do have impulse control problems, he said, but those problems are usually apparent by the age of 5.)
He and his team recently reviewed 200 papers about adolescent brain development.
They found that what many adults might perceive as impulsive behavior could actually be the way a young person explores the world.
All the while, their brains are adapting and learning as part of a larger biological process.
"And this is something that happens in a lot of mammals because, if they stay with the family — with their mom and dad so to speak, they're not going to succeed in life," he said. "They have to get out, and meet new people, form relationships."
Sensation seeking — the tendency to try out new and exciting things, can look like impetuous behavior — but it really isn't, he said.
Take driving, for example.
If a teen gets into a car accident, Romer said, it's probably because he or she doesn't have as much driving experience. It's less likely the teen took a miscalculated risk.
And while it may worry some parents, their tendency to explore and try new things actually helps teens develop into successful adults.