Why Teenagers Are So Impulsive

Why do teens—especially adolescent males—commit crimes more frequently than adults? One explanation may be that as a group, teenagers react more impulsively to threatening situations than do children or adults, likely because their brains have to work harder to rein in their behaviour.

Whether it’s driving too fast on a slick road or experimenting with drugs, teenagers have a reputation for courting danger that is often attributed to immaturity or poor decision-making. If immaturity or lack of judgment were the only problem, however, one would expect that children, whose brains are at an even earlier stage of development, would have an equal or greater penchant for risk-taking. But younger children tend to be more cautious than teenagers, suggesting that there is something unique about adolescent brain development that lures them to danger.

Brain region associated with restraint.

Brain region associated with restraint.

In an experiment to test impulsivity when faced with a threatening situation, adolescents showed significantly higher activity in a brain region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which is involved in top-down control of behaviour. You could think of it as the brake. It’s as if the teenage brain might need to work a little harder than others to hold that response back. This could help explain why teenage criminals are less likely to be repeat offenders, as their brains develop into adulthood, it gets easier for them to rein in their behaviour. Learn more here.

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