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Good teens, dumb behavior

Published on: December 30, 2013

A certain teen I know recently was joking with his friends on Facebook about having almost burned one of the friends' houses down. (Endearingly -- and luckily, in this case -- these kids friend their parents and then seem to forget that their parents can actually read what they post.) It was all very cryptic and silly, but clearly, something really dumb had gone down.

You'd probably call the teen in question a "good" kid -- he's sweet to his little sister, he still likes to hug his grandpa, he does his chores (usually), he keeps up with sports and school and friends, he's respectful to adults in general, he's thoughtful.

And yet this is the latest in a string of recent amazingly dumb stunts he's gotten up to with his friends. What gives?

According to Tara Parker-Pope of The Well,

In studies at Temple University, psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone versus with their friends. The findings suggest that teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.

Laurence Steinberg, the author of the study, notes that by "peer pressure" he doesn't mean the coercive social dynamics we usually associate with the term -- kids behave in more risky ways when they simply think their friends are watching them.

So this certain teen in question is probably going to be banned from hanging out alone at the friend's house--the one he bragged about almost burning down--and, according to Steinberg, that's probably not a bad idea.

The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.

(The Polite Backhand of the Week Award goes to the study author, Laurence Steinberg. After a spate of comments back at The Well that amounted to "tell us something we DIDN'T know," Steinberg responded with

At first glance, the finding that teenagers take more risks with their friends than when alone does seem to be common sense. What’s new here — and what I imagine you didn’t know — is the identification of the underlying neural processes. Not everyone is interested in understanding how the brain works, but neuroscientists are.)

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