This is video #4 in my 12-part video series
based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. In this video you will learn about:
1. 12 risks that adolescents face;
2. Why adolescence tends to involve more risky behavior than childhood or adulthood;
3. What you can do as a teacher to help lessen the chances that a teen’s propensity toward risky behavior will result in negative consequences.
In this video, I look at 12 risks of adolescence including: traffic accidents, gang violence, suicide, alcohol abuse, nicotine abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, sleep disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, internet addiction, and bullying. I explain how the teen brain’s limbic system or emotional brain seeks risks and rewards without having the inhibiting influence of the prefrontal cortex, (which doesn’t fully develop until the early twenties), to dampen its effects, and how this imbalance results in teens’ risky behaviors becoming dangerous behaviors. I finally explain how teachers can use their knowledge of the teen brain to design strategies that provide positive rewards and risks in the classroom so that adolescents are less likely to engage in unsafe risks elsewhere.

You can watch the video by clicking on the play button above, or you can read the transcript below:

”In this video we’re going look at 12 risks that adolescents face as a result of having a brain that’s undergoing rapid transformation between the ages of 11 and 21.  I’m not providing this information to bum you out, but rather to raise an alarm that strong measures must be taken in our schools and in our culture to help ensure that our teens can navigate those adolescent years as safely as possible, and can use their dynamic brains to move forward into the world.

In our previous videos we learned that the emotional brain or limbic system of adolescents largely matures at puberty.  On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, which is the most important area of the brain that works to direct decision-making, self-reflection, identity, inhibition of impulses, and other executive functions, doesn’t fully mature until the early twenties.

One area of the brain that forms part of the emotional brain or limbic system is the nucleus accumbens.  This area of the brain is especially important when we look at many of the risks of adolescence.  The nucleus accumbens regulates our penchant for seeking rewards and the willingness to take risks to obtain those rewards.  One of the key neurotransmitters that functions in this region is dopamine, which is connected to reward-seeking, motivation, stimulation, and sensation-seeking.  In adulthood, this area of the brain under typical conditions is balanced by the inhibition qualities of the prefrontal cortex.  But in adolescence, this hasn’t happened yet.

Now, it’s important to realize that this isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, what we’ve learned over the past two decades about the adolescent brain is that it is a dynamically changing organ that is highly sensitive to environmental inputs – a feature that’s referred to as neuroplasticity.  This means that our interventions as parents or educators, can have a huge impact on how that brain is structured for the remainder of a person’s life.

In our last video, we examined how over hundreds of thousands of years nature seems to have designed the adolescent brain to evolve in this ‘’risky’’ way, to enable teens to break out of the family nest, and forge ahead into the world of risks, rewards, and opportunities.  So, we need to understand that reward-seeking, sensation-seeking, being highly motivated, are all good things if they are aimed at bettering the lives of the reward-seekers.  And whether or not this is going to happen has a lot to do with the types of environments in which an adolescent finds him or herself.

Unfortunately, our contemporary landscape is littered with dangers and hazards for adolescents.  There are many different types of rewards out there in our world that don’t function to better their lives or move them into the world, but instead can lead to illness, accidents, distress, pain, damage to the brain itself, and even death.  I’d like to review 12 of these risks in the rest of this video.

The first risk is traffic accidents. Accidents represent the leading cause of death in adolescents ages 12-19, and traffic accidents make up almost three-quarters of that figure. This chart shows how fatal injuries decline from 16 to 19.  While correlation does not mean causation, these statistics seem to follow the maturation of the prefrontal cortex during these years.  Studies have shown, in particular, how teenagers are more willing to take risks in a computer simulated driving task, when they believe their peers are paying attention to their performance.

The second risk is gang violence. Gangs represent an expression of an adolescent’s preference for peer affiliation over contact with older or younger people.  They provide a sense of belonging, and violence can result due to suppressed anger or rage, conflict with other gangs, drug use, turf protection, initiation rituals, and other factors.Gang membership has a dramatic increase from ages 9 to 14, and then, perhaps again due to cortical maturation , there is a sharp decline in the mid- to late teen years.

The third risk is suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents. While suicide rates do continue to climb throughout adulthood, you can see the dramatic increase in suicides from the blue line at the bottom representing kids 14 and under, and the red line above it, representing people ages 15-24.  Suicide is linked, of course, to mental illness, which we’ll come to shortly.

Alcohol abuse is a fourth risk of adolescence. Peer influences have a great deal to do with the degree to which an adolescent will abuse alcohol. This chart shows alcohol use among teens from ages 12 to 20, and while there has been a gradual decline in alcohol use over the past decade or so, still, almost 10% of 14-15 year olds, and nearly a quarter of 16-17 years are using alcohol.  This brain scan comparison shows the dramatic decrease in blood flow activity in the brain of a 15-year old drinker who was sober at the time of the scan.

The next risk of the teen years is drug abuse.  While many drugs are abused, marijuana in particular is the drug most abused by adolescents.  This chart shows how 70% of the time, marijuana is the first illicit drug abused in adolescence or early adulthood. This brain scan graphic illustrates the damage to the corpus collosum in a daily user of marijuana. The corpus collosum is the area of the brain that connects and directs information between the right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex.  With the approval of marijuana for recreational use in many states around the U.S., marijuana abuse among teenagers is likely to continue being a problem.

Tobacco and nicotine abuse represents the next risk for teens.  This next chart shows the dramatic increase in cigarette use from ages 12-13 to ages 18-20 represented in the first four blue bars.  In this next slide, we can see a brain scan illustrating how smoking reduces an enzyme that controls the concentration of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

Mental illness represents another major risk during the adolescent years.  The dramatic changes going on in the brain during adolescence with respect to dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters related to mood, aggression, and anxiety, are a big part of why most mental illnesses begin in the teen years. This chart illustrates the fact that 20% of kids ages 9-17 experience some form of mental illness.  That’s one out of five teenagers.

Sleep disorders are a further problem for many teens. Research suggests that the sleep cycles of teens are different from older or younger inividuials, and generally result in a sleep pattern that tends toward getting to sleep later and getting up later than other age groups. This chart shows how the incidence of insomnia, for example, increases from the age of 9 to age 15, particularly in girls.

Given that adolescence sees the onset of reproductive capacity and the emergence of mature sexual feelings, sexually transmitted diseases represent another hazard of the teen years.  This chart shows the percentages of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV infections in different age groups. Note how 15-19 year olds represent 30% and 25% respectively of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

While we noted earlier that marijuana abuse is the primary form of adolescent drug abuse, we should keep in mind that other drugs are being abused as well during this time. This chart shows the percentages of 12th graders using and abusing drugs, including hallucinogens, sedatives, ecstasy, oxycontin, and cocaine.

Internet addiction is a growing problem among youth in America and elsewhere in the world.  This chart, based on research with young people in China, suggests how substantial this problem is becoming.  In the United States, adolescents spend over seven hours a day with mass media, and some of these kids are developing addictions as a result.

Finally, bullying behavior, both online and in schools and neighborhoods, represents a risk in the adolescent years, both for those doing the bullying and those being bullied.  This chart indicates how bullying seems to be more prevalent in early adolescence and then begins to decrease as kids mature (again, suggesting some correlation with prefrontal cortex maturation).

While the above 12 risks may seem overwhelming to many educators and parents, it needs to be kept in mind that the adolescent brain is continually changing and is highly susceptible to environmental influences–whether those influences are good or bad.   This is what we mean by the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain.  I want to suggest, therefore, that as educators or parents, we need to look at the role we can take in mediating between the environment and the teen brain.  The propensity in the teen brain to crave reward and risk (which leads to many of the hazards described above), is a given in the make-up of the brain – we can’t change that – it’s hardwired in.

But we CAN help to direct that penchant for reward and risk in positive directions.  A teen, for example, can get his thrills from a school-wide poetry slam rather than a high-speed car chase.  But this won’t happen if school consists mainly of lectures, textbooks, and standardized testing.  In such a case, students will find their risks and rewards elsewhere.

I’ve put together a list of eight underlying psychological risks of adolescence and indicated how they can be channeled in positive directions through brain-friendly practices in schools.  So, for example, to help deal with the poor decision-making abilities of many teens, I suggest that we need to give them frequent opportunities to make choices in the classroom.

In the next eight videos, I will take up each of these eight brain-friendly practices and provide concrete strategies that educators can implement in schools so that we can help teens develop their brains and move into the world in a positive way.

For more information about the risks of adolescence, as well as a laying out of the eight brain-friendly practices, read my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, available through Amazon and other online sources including the publisher ASCD.  See other videos in my 12-part series on the adolescent brain on my You Tube channel. 

This video was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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