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With Friends Like These…
Mr. Steinberg has started to look at this phenomenon, testing the commonly held assumption that the presence of peers makes adolescents take more risks. In one study, he and Margo Gardner, a former graduate student, used a computer game in which players tried to earn points by driving a car across a screen. As they progressed, a yellow light popped up and it eventually turned red, at the same time as a brick wall appeared in the car's path. When the yellow light appeared, players had to decide whether to stop immediately or risk forging ahead, in the hope of gaining more points.
The Temple team had adolescents, young adults, and adults play the game alone and with peers. Adolescents were far more likely to take risks in a group, while adults drove more conservatively when surrounded by others. College-age adults also drove more aggressively in company, though they took fewer risks than adolescents did.
"This is consistent with data from driving studies indicating that adolescents have more accidents when there are other teenage passengers in the car," says Mr. Steinberg. He is looking into extending their research by testing the influence of peers while subjects undergo a brain scan.
Gregory S. Berns, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, is also scanning teenagers to see how they respond to social forces. In a previous experiment on adults, his group found that peers can have a strong effect on the brain, actually coloring the way we see the world.
Dr. Berns and his team scanned subjects while they mentally rotated objects and compared them, a task they could do accurately on their own. The trick was that the experimenters hired actors to perform the same tasks, and their answers -- sometimes purposefully wrong -- were shown to the subjects as they solved the problems. In many cases, when the actors answered incorrectly, the subjects followed suit.
According to the scanning data, the subjects were not just altering their answers to go along with the group. "The group's responses were changing activity in the subjects' visual and perception regions, which suggests that other people can change the perception of what you can see," says Dr. Berns. In current work, he is testing teenagers to see whether they are more susceptible to social interference.
Although these kinds of studies are just starting up, some researchers hypothesize that the brain has a social-emotional processing system that operates somewhat independently from the more cold, cognitive network. While the latter doesn't mature until adulthood, the social-emotional system gets revved up by hormonal changes in puberty, suggests Mr. Steinberg.
To see that system in action, simply look at a group of teens laughing, he says. "They laugh louder than adults do, and the same thing happens when they get angry or upset," he says. "It leads to people getting more aroused, and aroused more easily."
Teenagers are also running up significant sleep deficits, which can affect their ability to moderate their behavior. Research has shown that people's daily rhythm changes as they enter adolescence, causing them to stay up later and require more sleep overall. But school schedules force teenagers to rise earlier than their bodies are naturally prepared to do. Distractions like the Internet and increasing homework loads add to the problem by keeping high schoolers up even later.
And for reasons not well understood, children are entering puberty significantly earlier than in the past, so they spend longer going through the risky years of adolescence. By age 8, for example, 47 percent of African-American girls and 15 percent of European American girls have started to develop breasts, or pubic hair, or both.
The new scientific findings are leading scientists -- and society at large -- to rethink how to treat teenagers. The Supreme Court, for example, quoted Mr. Steinberg's work when it ruled in 2005 that states could not execute people for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Because the brains of adolescents are not ready to fully regulate their behavior, "adolescents need more supervision," says Mr. Steinberg. "We need to build that into the way in which the laws and other kinds of social policies regulate their behavior."
Ronald E. Dahl, a professor of psychiatry at Pittsburgh, has reached a similar conclusion from his own research on adolescents. He calls for adults to provide kids with more "scaffolding and monitoring, so that risks are relatively less, but as [show responsibility and develop skills, you gradually give them more freedom."
That kind of support -- in the form of supervised after-school programs or restricted driving licenses -- is critical because it allows the adolescent brain to acquire its social and emotional fluency, he suggests. When that learning process breaks down, either because of genetic susceptibilities or problems in their lives, teenagers can develop depression, anxiety, or the other types of mood disorders that make their appearance during this stage of life. Stunted growth in this domain can also send people veering toward addiction, he says.
He and his team are trying to peer into the hypothesized window for social and emotional learning by testing how the brains of adolescents with mood disorders react differently from those of unafflicted teens. As a participant in the study, Erika represents a normal kid just climbing onto the roller coaster of puberty. Inside and out, she is starting to show the telltale signs that her brain and body are entering adolescence. Like most of her peers, her attention is shifting away from family and toward friends. "She's starting to spend more time on the phone," says her mother.
The day of testing wears on, and Erika grows bored with the procedures. But while waiting to get her brain scanned, she lights up as conversation turns to the MySpace social-networking Web site, where she has posted a page in violation of its age restrictions. Some adults in the room, clueless about the MySpace phenomenon, ask what Erika does on the site. The 11-year-old answers in a vague way that leaves the experimenters just as uninformed as before. Her broad face curls into a grin when she explains the site's appeal.
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