Study finds most teens avoid rash, impulsive behaviors

Teenager diving backward off an oceanside cliff

New UO-led research could reduce the worry for parents of teenagers. Most teens do have the behavioral brakes to keep their risk-taking experiments in check.

Only a subset of teens – those with weak cognitive control – engage in excessive levels of impulsiveness, such as acting without thinking, and end up struggling with addictions or other behavioral problem as young adults, said Atika Khurana, associate professor and director of graduate programs in the UO’s prevention science program.

Cognitive control is the ability to exert top-down control over behavior, thoughts and emotions. This ability, tied to executive functions, rests in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

The findings, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, challenge traditional thinking that adolescence is a time of universal imbalance, with kids lacking cognitive control and taking risks to reap instant rewards.

“People have heard so much about the teenage brain being all gas and no brakes, stemming from an imbalance between the reward and control regions of the brain,” Khurana said. “This study shows that this is not true. There is an imbalance for some youth, but it is not universal.”

Khurana and colleagues analyzed six waves of data collected from 387 adolescents, ages 11 to 18, in the Philadelphia area. They looked at changes in sensation-seeking and impulsivity during in the teenage years in relation to cognitive control and as predictors of substance use disorders in late adolescence.

Only those teens with weakness in cognitive control were at risk for impulsive behaviors, putting them at higher risk for substance abuse. While sensation-seeking did increase during teenage years, it was not associated with weakness in cognitive control or later substance abuse.

“Previous studies modeling changes in impulsivity and sensation seeking during adolescence drew conclusions based on age differences without looking at the same adolescents over time as they developed,” she said. “This study looked at individual trajectories and captured distinct patterns of change that were not otherwise observable when looking at youth at different ages.”

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, supported predictions of the Lifespan Wisdom Model developed by study co-author Daniel Romer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It also was in line with a series of published findings that have emerged from Khurana’s work with the same data, which began while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

In 2012, her group reported a positive association of working memory with sensation-seeking and a negative association with impulsivity. While children with sensation seeking engaged in exploratory forms of risk-taking, they were not getting stuck in unhealthy patterns of risk-taking.

Subsequently, the group has shown that weak working memory in combination with impulsivity can be used to predict trajectories of early alcohol use and risky sexual behavior in adolescents, and that adolescents with strong working memory are better equipped to escape early progression in drug use and avoid substance abuse issues.

The research, Khurana said, speaks to the need for greater emphasis on early interventions that can strengthen cognitive control.

Other co-authors were Laura M. Betancourt and Hallam Hurt, both of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications