10 Aug 2020

Teen risk taking: Forget what you thought you knew

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 10 August 2020

Adolescents are subject to a biological drive that leads them to be impulsive and at the same time over-think the consequences of their actions, according to a top US psychiatrist.

Dr Jess Shatkin, a physician and child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, says young people don't believe they are invisible and actually over-estimate risks. 

Teenager playing video games online.

Photo: 123RF

Shatkin has been doing ground breaking research in this area for around 15 years and is a founder and director of one of the USA's largest training programmes in psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine.

He is also the author of Born to be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks and How We Can Keep Them Safe.

Shatkin tells Kathryn Ryan it is important parents show empathy and monitor their children, offering appropriate advice and understand that their behaviour is part biological and part influenced by modern social and technological pressures that can enduce emotional pain.

Many behaviours of people aged 11-to-26 are motivated by the brain's hardwired mechanism of avoiding this pain and following pleasure, he says. For some however, this can lead to danger.

“There is some degree of impulsivity that calms down as we age… But more than that there’s a bunch of neuro-chemicals and anatomical things going on that most people are unaware of. For example, we have higher levels of dopamine in our brain during adolescence than after.

He says dopamine is a learning chemical, not simply about pleasure, but one about the promise of pleasure. The chemical is a natural reinforcer of pleasurable experiences, marking in memory the dopamine release and initiates a drive to repeat the experience. It therefore is associated with addiction to certain foods, drugs or experiences such as porn or sex.

“When children learn that in order to have baby you have to have sexual intercourse many of them are turned off and can’t believe that adult who is telling them this crazy story.

“But the fact is a few years later after puberty they are drawn to doing that at a level they would have never imagined and the idea of the act itself is really quite strange.

“But dopamine tells us ‘this is good, this is important’ and so we are being led around a bit by evolutionary biology towards behaviours that feel good, that feel like they are important for survival. Some are, and some aren’t."

Shatkin says biologically-determined behaviour is good for the survival of the herd, but may prove catastrophic for the individual.

“Mother Nature has built us as a species to engage in lots of behaviours that are not necessarily good for the individual but are good for the species.

"During adolescence we are stronger, we are faster, we have a better immune response, we can tolerant pain and temperature extremes better… That’s why hundreds of thousands of years ago they were built for running and finding new mates or finding new water and food sources. Yeah, some thousands will die, but the species will live on because some will find food that's edible, some will find water that’s drinkable...”

However, adolescents are acutely self-aware and do assess their behaviour and actions before taking them, he says. They acknowledge dangers and their own limitations, and are even prone of vastly overthinking and over-analysing situations.

“Kids don’t think they are invincible," Shatkins says.

"They believe in fact that they are actually much more likely to get hurt by some of these things they do, or to get pregnant, or to get a sexually-transmitted infection or to have an automobile accident, or to die even, much, much more likely, thousands of times more likely to be, than they actually are. But that doesn’t stop them, because all these other things are driving them... by their biology.”

He says a study of thousands of 15-year-olds found their belief about the chances of death this year was about 200 times that of adults.

Helping them plan activity, instead of acting compulsively and overthinking the consequences is important for parents and wider society.

Parents must first understand that oppositional behaviour is not to be taken personally, as much of this is hormones at work. A neuro-biological education is important, both for the parent and adolescent.

There are some strategies that ameliorate lack of clear thinking due to impulsiveness. Regular exercise and better sleep can help teens avoid bad decisions, and can treat depression and anxiety. Shatkin says studies in the US show a later start to high school, helps teens make better decisions and brings better test results.

Operating from a 'zero tolerance' philosophy, expelling students and aggressive drug interventions, don't work, he says.

“A lot of these approaches were built on the impetus of good will, good thinking. The idea that this might work, but what happened was these interventions were not based on the science of understanding young people. It wasn’t based on the understanding of how their brains work, of how their bodies work.”

Good parenting and using the core skills of monitoring risks and offering advice brings better outcomes.

“Parents who pay attention and talk to their children about risk and spend time with them have kids who listen to the parents and kids who actually ask the parents for advice.”

Ultimately if parents can help teens develop a feeling of self-efficacy, self-assurance and skills to regulate their emotions and anxiety levels, it will help limit the possibility of them developing mental health problems.

Studies show mental illness starts in children and adolescence, he says.

“First we need to be watching and be careful with kids and identify early because when we identify these things early we have so many good treatments.”

Emotional pain is a fundamental factor and one that people should not under-estimate. Modern life, with the proliferation of devices and social media, has created new avenues for teens to experience this pain and it can lead to self-harm and worse.

“Kids will do a lot to avoid emotional pain. You talk about screens, phones, social media. What we’ve done is we’ve given kids a way of feeling hurt all the time – FOMO, the fear of missing out, by showing them on Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook, the party they didn’t get invited to, who’s having more fun than them, who’s flirting more effectively than them, who’s better looking or has better clothes or hair than them.

“We’re constantly giving our kids through these devices a way to feel bad about themselves and… that emotional pain is very potent.

“Some will try to avoid that emotional pain with physical pain by cutting themselves or engaging in self-injurious behaviour. Some will try to avoid that emotional pain by taking drugs, seeking thrills…”

This toxic environment, with degrees and volumes of information available on the web, can be overwhelming. It has created a set of pressures no other generation had experienced, although there is also the possibility teens today have been conditioned to be less resilient as well.

“I think a lot of us in the middle-class and the wealthier socio-economic strata have felt like we could make it easier on our kids.

“That may have contributed to some differences in resilience because you don’t have to do as much for yourself… But there are also stressors that our kids are facing that we never had to deal with… constantly being bombarded with feedback that you may not be living up to what other people are experiencing and that you’re being left behind.

“Remember that evolutionarily, our job as adolescents is to find a good place to live, to get a good nest and to find a mate.

“So, as we are always driven that way neuro-biologically … this drive towards being a popular person, a person desired and sought after pushes us so hard, the more that we are reminded we may not be making muster, the worse we feel about ourselves and the less resilient.”

Allowing teens to take responsibility and take considered risks in their lives, while building self-esteem, is the best parents can do, he says.