Keeping Teen Brains Safe

Image by Luke Maxwell

I have a disconcerting memory from when I was in my early twenties: I was reading an article in a magazine about how the adolescent brain is still changing and developing longer than most people realize. The article had an example which showed a photo of a woman. According to the article, adolescents saw anger while adults saw fear. I stared and stared at the photo but could not see fear instead of anger–even knowing what it was!

I was startled into realizing that no matter what stage of life I was in at the moment, my brain was not done yet. Was that a relief that any mistakes were the fault of not-full-adulthood? Or should I second guess all my decisions now? I decided not to worry about it, shrugged and put it out of my still-developing mind.

A recent Science News article talked about how sensitive adolescent brains are to outside influences, more so than adults, and very differently than in childhood. It’s a whole other world developing in the minds of our teens and twenty-somethings, and science and our society are still trying to understand it. They are more aware of danger signals, have a harder time letting fearful memories go, they can juggle multiple mental tasks better, are more vulnerable to ill effects of drugs, and mental disorders often surface during this period. With two teenagers at home, I was curious about the topic and how it affects them and everyone who interacts with our young adults.

My sister, a professor of Anatomy and Physiology, pointed me to an article in The New Yorker. The author mentioned several studies about how young adults take more risks due to their brains still developing. My sister explained that biologically speaking, there are several things going on behind those know-it-all teen eyes: The grey matter in our brains shrinks as we age–a sign of specialization. The myelin sheath is growing and wrapping around the brain’s nerve cells (which send thoughts). The mid-brain (more instinct driven) is slowly becoming less important, as the frontal lobe (methodical, logical thought) becomes dominant. But it may not happen until late twenties–even early thirties!

I asked my two teenagers to read the article too and tell me what they thought about risky behavior, how effective is society at helping teens be safe (driving, drugs, etc.), and what else could be done. Both felt that trying to scare teens into being safe, or forcing them to take defensive driving courses, or discussing ad nauseam about how bad drugs are, doesn’t work. They know the information already, and care too, but all that goes out the window at a crazy party. They both felt prevention was key. Keep young adults busy and tired: being involved in sports or the arts for example. Help teens choose friends and activities wisely so risky opportunities don’t come up. The driving age should be at least 18, and (like our city) free bus transportation to anyone with a student ID (high school or college).

My daughter talked about how she started a tea club at her college, not expecting much more than a couple people to try new teas and watch Miyazaki films. But the response was overwhelming, with students coming up to her saying how excited they were to have a non-alcoholic way to socialize. Providing a safe environment doesn’t detract from having a good time. And if adults reading this think a tea club doesn’t fit with your memories of the best times of your life getting wasted…

Another study showed binge drinking, which is a risky behavior (something teens are more likely to do in the first place because of their lack of brain development) can actually change their prefrontal cortex, the executive function area. This can lead to an terrible cycle of bad decisions involving drugs and alcohol, which damage the brain, leading to worse decisions that can further damage the brain.

Most adults will say how concerned they are about drinking and drug problems when they send their child off to college. However, my daughter pointed out some adults are hypocritical on this issue. She said that her peers have been respectful of her choice not to drink alcohol. But there are several adults in her life that encourage her to party and drink and experiment in college, to “have fun” while she doesn’t have as much responsibility. If that is the experience of other teens: Society in general says be careful, but “wink, wink, nudge, nudge”-fun means being risky, that’s quite a mixed message for those young brains to process. (And STOP telling my kid to be risky, dammit!)

I went back to my sister, the college biology professor, asking for advice. What can we do to help young adults be safe? Knowing the physical reality for these kids, does she interact differently? “I try to give my students knowledge to make informed and healthy decisions, but in the end, it’s the adults in their lives that make the difference. They need to know we are watching out for them. We need to give them our compassion and patience.”

Remember that beginning memory I had with misinterpreting the facial expression in my young brain? I should mention I was a married mother of two at the time. Should I have been more concerned about raising two children when I was still not a full adult? Maybe. But that wouldn’t jive with the research then would it? Humans are physically healthiest to have children in our late teens until late twenties even though our brains are wired to be risky. But that makes sense too. What is riskier than bringing a small, defenseless being into this world? In fact, some researchers believe all that risky behavior is to our evolutionary advantage. If anyone really thought about the dangers associated with having children, no one would have kids in the first place. But I didn’t think about that as a young mom. Instead I just loved my kids and did the best I could.

Our teens and young adults may not have the abilities to make the wisest decisions, but love? That they have in spades. And we do too. So let’s do our best to keep those lovely young brains safe.

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and their kids are too. Rebecca is a lover of tea, science literacy, music, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies.