Here's why 14 is the riskiest age for a teenager – and the most embarrassing

If you know any teenagers this might not come as a surprise, but research has confirmed that risk-taking peaks during this exact moment in mid-adolescence.

“We calculated the age at which our group of participants made the greatest proportion of risk choices to be 14.38 years,” writes Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a University College London neuroscientist, in her new book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

The beginning of puberty (around 11 or 12) to the late teens/early 20s brings about a host of brain and behavioural changes.

Brain scans have shown that teens are not only more prone to embarrassment, they’re also less likely to respond to punishment and are more visually creative than adults.

Knowing the neuroscience behind brain development should help us better understand, parent, teach and relate to those on the cusp of adulthood. Here are a few more insights into the teen brain from her book, out now:

They’re more embarrassed
Parents, it’s not your imagination — teens are more physically embarrassed (often by you). A 2013 Harvard study scanned participants in MRI scanners and then alerted them that a peer was watching (in reality, there was no peer).

“Observed” teens showed greater activity in their medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with “reflecting on the self,” writes Blakemore.

Even their skin revealed inner turmoil. Teens produced more sweat when they thought they were being watched.

Teens don’t always take risks, but they do when they’re with friends
A simulation driving game asked different age groups to get around a track as fast as possible while still obeying traffic lights.

Amber lights represented a risky choice — as you would have a higher chance of causing an accident and losing time and points. Teens ages 13-16 were almost twice as likely to run lights when playing the game in front of friends.

Interestingly, there was not an increase of light running when they played alone. “It means that adolescents don’t always take risks, contrary to the stereotype,” writes Blakemore.

The risky behaviour continues into our early 20s
A risk-assessing card game — where one pack of cards is considered a “risky” deck with big payouts and even bigger losses and the other is a “steady earner” — showed that adolescents 14-21 were more likely to choose the risky deck.

“This age group preferred and persisted with the risk pack, even though it eventually lost them money.” Children and adults were more likely to stick with the steady earners.

Even teen mice experience peer pressure
A 2014 study on rodents showed that adolescent mice drink more alcohol (yes, apparently mice will hit the sauce) if they’re surrounded by other adolescent mice.

This isn’t true for adult mice, who drink the same no matter who they’re with.

Puberty does a number on the brain
A series of memory tests from the 1980s showed that there is a “dip” in the memory tasks around age 12.

A 2000 follow-up confirmed that 11- and 12-year-olds were 15 percent slower than 10 to 11-year-olds when asked to identify emotions in photographs of faces. “We don’t yet understand the causes of the possible dip . . .

It’s possible that the large changes in sex hormones at this time might trigger changes in brain circuitry,” Blakemore writes.

This supports evidence of the “educational dip” in early adolescence, between 12 and 14, where some students tend to do worse in school.

They’re bad at filtering out emotional information
A study at the National Institutes of Health in 2007 suggested that teens are worse at ignoring emotional cues than adults.

The study asked two groups, one ages 9 to 17, the other 25 to 36, to view fearful faces in fMRI scanners.

“Compared with adults, the children and adolescents showed higher activation of two regions in the frontal cortex when they were asked to look at fearful faces than when they were asked to look at neutral faces,” Blakemore writes.

This didn’t change when they were told to focus only on the “non-emotional aspect” — the nose (fear is typically communicated through the eyes) as it did in adults.

“This suggests that the adolescent brain is tracking emotional and arousing stimuli in the environment even when the individual has been asked to focus on non-emotional stimuli,” she writes.

Teens are less likely to learn from punishments
In 2016, Blakemore found that adolescents are “less likely to learn from punishment.” In the study, she asked two groups — 12 to 17 and 18 to 32 — to choose symbols that (they would learn over time) were associated with rewards and punishments.

While both groups were equally good at spotting the winners, the adolescents fared much worse in sussing out the losers. This suggests that “a reward-based approach, rather than punishment, might be more likely to benefit an adolescent learning,” writes Blakemore.

They’re more creative (in some ways)
Visual creativity is often highest in adolescence, studies have shown.

Though adults perform better on “verbal divergent” thinking (for example, “name various uses for a brick”), mid-adolescents (ages 15 and 16) did better on “visual divergent” tests (for example, “makeup similarities between different drawings”) than younger adolescents and adults.

“Creativity is still developing in adolescence,” writes Blakemore. “Adolescents are creative, their brains are plastic and malleable and they are quick learners.”

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