Why 14 Is A Dangerous Age

We want to keep our kids safe – so why do they seem hell-bent on living dangerously once they hit the teenage years? Apparently, they really are born that way….

Why 14 Is A Dangerous Age

Teenage behaviour often mystifies us. We wonder why they’re drawn to activities and behaviour we consider risky and dangerous – even though, as parents, we’ve ‘been there, done that’ ourselves.

A case in point is last year’s Thai caving story which, luckily, has ended with all the teenage boys safely rescued.

Well, according to Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore – a leading researcher into adolescent neurology – they can’t help it. It’s how human brains are programmed to develop.

Her latest book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, explores the adolescent brain and how it differs from those of younger children and adults. It explains how the most easygoing of children can suddenly transforming into challenging teenagers, and why it’s during these formative years that mental illnesses including depression and schizophrenia often first appear.

Professor Blakemore’s research shows that while puberty heralds the start of various changes in the brain and individual behaviour patterns, the age at which the drive to take risks is most prevalent is 14.38 years old.

This discovery backs up a previous study, which saw 86 males aged nine to 35 play computer gambling games. Participants were offered a small chance to win a lot of money, or a better chance to win a lesser amount. They made their decisions, and scientists measured their emotional responses to the outcome.

Their findings showed it was 14-year-olds who were the most likely to take bigger risks, and they also showed a marked increase in enjoyment when their riskier gambles paid off. The study concluded that while they were able to weigh up the likely consequences of their actions – good or bad – they generally preferred to take a chance over the safer, less exciting option.

Teens are more likely to take risks when their friends are present

“We found teenagers much preferred the riskier spin of the wheel even though they were aware of the consequences. They chose to take those risks,” said neuroscientist Dr Stephanie Burnett.

One of the main areas of the brain still developing in adolescence is the dopamine system, which helps us feel pleasure and reward. This may explain why teenagers choose to indulge in risky behaviour; figures published earlier this year showed nearly 20% of children in the UK have had some kind of run-in with the police by the age of 14, and more than 10% admitted to binge-drinking.

Professor Blakemore’s research also showed teens were more likely to take risks when their friends were present.

Participants were asked to make their way around a track as quickly as possible during a driving simulation game, while still observing traffic signals. Those aged between 13 and 16 were almost twice as likely to run yellow lights – increasing the chance of an accident and resulting in slower times being recorded – when playing in front of their friends.

Among the study’s other interesting findings was proof that teenagers really do experience physical embarrassment more than adults; scans taken when they believed they were being watched showed increased activity in the area of the brain associated with self-reflection. They also produced more sweat.

“We shouldn’t demonize this period of life. We should understand it, nurture it and celebrate it.”

Another key discovery reinforced the belief that teens respond better to a reward-based approach when it comes to learning.

Two groups – one consisting of 12 to 17-year-olds and the other of 18 to 32-year-olds – were asked to identify symbols associated with reward and punishment. While the groups were on a par when it came to picking positive symbols, the adolescent group performed much worse when spotting negative ones.

And, it seems, adolescent peer pressure is also a very real thing – and not just for humans.

Professor Blakemore cites a 2014 study, which showed adolescent mice drank more alcohol when surrounded by other adolescent mice; adult rodents consumed the same amount no matter what company they were in.

“Knowing the neuroscience behind brain development should help us better understand, parent, teach and relate to those on the cusp of adulthood,” says Professor Blakemore.

“We shouldn’t demonize this period of life. We should understand it, nurture it and celebrate it.”