Navigating Digital Dilemmas – Questioning the Conventional Wisdom Surrounding Teen Brain Development and Online Behaviour.

May 7, 2024

Caveat – This article spawned from our inquiries into a common narrative we’ve encountered over the years from other digital literacy and internet safety advocates – the notion that due to their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, teens struggle to make sound choices leading to poor decision-making online. This message has consistently intrigued us, especially considering that we’ve anecdotally observed that most teens we have interacted with possess good critical thinking abilities and consistently make wise decisions both online and offline. Notice we said “most”– yes, there are some teens who do not. The question that we hope to challenge in this article – Has stereotypes regarding teen brain development coloured our interpretation of the why teens take risks online?

As parents and caregivers, raising teens can often feel like navigating into uncharted waters. It’s a phase marked by impulsive behavior, risky decisions, and sometimes seemingly inexplicable actions and behaviours. However, behind these actions and behaviors often lies a complex interplay of biology, psychology, and the innate drive for exploration and learning.

A common explanation often cited by those in our industry for troubling online teenage behaviors – “it’s the underdeveloped teen prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for critical thinking and decision-making that is responsible”. This explanation suggests that teen’s impulsivity and risky online behavior stem from their incomplete cognitive control compared to adults. However, research psychologists like Dr. Daniel Romer, Dr. Valerie Reyna, and Dr. Theodore Satterthwaite propose an alternative view. They suggest that teenager’s natural curiosity and need for exploration might be more influential factors when it comes to bad decision making than it is their still-developing prefrontal cortex. Their research challenges the conventional wisdom on why teens take risk and make bad decisions, offering another perspective on adolescent behavior. (1)(2)

As Dr Daniel Romer and his colleagues have stated:

“There are still too many references to brain development suggesting that the adolescent brain is less than ready for self-regulation, and that confuse exploration and identify development with impulsivity and rash behaviour.” (3)

Dr. Daniel Romer, Dr. Valerie Reyna, and Dr. Theodore Satterthwaite have pointed out that adolescent exploratory behavior is often misunderstood as impulsivity caused by the lack of brain development. Their argument – it’s a natural inclination for teens to seek out new and exciting experiences, a phenomenon known as sensation seeking.(4) This drive for novelty peaks during adolescence, leading teens to test boundaries and take risks in pursuit of new experiences in their onlife world – something that often continues well into adulthood as well.

However, it’s crucial to recognize that not all risk-taking behavior is created equal. While some level of experimentation is a normal part of teen development, there is a smaller cohort of teens who do exhibit genuine impulse control problems. According to Dr. Daniel Romer, Dr. Valerie Reyna, and Dr. Theodore Satterthwaite, identifying who these teens are early on can be key in mitigating potential hazards later in life – both online and offline.

Also, the researchers argue that the way teenagers perceive risks and rewards undergoes significant changes as they mature. What may seem like a lack of control or foresight to us adults, is often a result of teen’s evolving cognitive processes and their need to gather firsthand experiences to inform future decision-making.

What this research supports – it is essential for parents to understand that the teenage brain is not inherently flawed or deficient, a message that should never be shared with youth in our opinion. Rather, it’s undergoing a period of intense growth and development, laying the groundwork for adulthood. This period of exploration and novelty-seeking serves a purpose – to equip teens with the experience needed to navigate the complexities of adult life thus building resiliency. In fact, protecting youth from these experiences may prevent the resiliency they need to excel and protect themselves in today’s onlife world as they get older.

While adolescence may present challenges to teens, parents, and caregivers, it’s also a time of immense growth and learning. By fostering teen agency, open communication, providing guidance, and understanding the underlying drivers of teenage behavior, parents and caregivers can support their teen’s create resiliency through this transformative phase. This is especially true then it comes to teaching good digital literacy as it applies to a teen’s online activities.

While teenage impulsivity may seem daunting at times, it’s important to approach it with empathy and understanding. By recognizing the underlying motivations behind adolescent behavior and providing a supportive environment for growth, parents can help their teens navigate the journey to adulthood with confidence and resilience. 

We believe that the research conducted by Dr. Daniel Romer, Dr. Valerie Reyna, and Dr. Theodore Satterthwaite offers a compelling challenge to the prevalent stereotypes regarding the “underdeveloped” prefrontal cortex as the primary reason behind teen’s questionable decisions, whether online or offline – a narrative which is often pushed by those in our industry. This insight has significantly influenced our comprehension of teenage decision-making and will consequently influence the approach we take in communicating with parents, caregivers, educators, and the teens themselves on the reasons why youth will take risks and make bad decisions in today’s onlife world.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter






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