Teenage Puzzles

Opposing Choices.

Government advertising campaigns to tackle excessive drinking are dismissed as irrelevant by young binge drinkers, because consuming extreme quantities of alcohol is part of their sub-cultural social identity, according to research published 18th March in the Journal of Business Research.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, together with a team from three other UK universities, discovered that official messages are unlikely to work with groups where behaviour is motivated by the need to subvert rules and norms.

Indeed, their study suggested that multi-million pound anti-drinking campaigns could even have an adverse effect on the people most at risk of drinking excessively. Instead, the researchers suggested that more targeted and practical interventions may be more effective than mass media campaigns.

In England, alcohol is responsible for 1.2 million annual hospital admissions, 15,500 deaths, and an annual cost to the UK National Health Service of £3.5 billion.

Professor Chris Hackley, from the School of Management at Royal Holloway, said: “The insight that heavy drinking can be part of a rule-breaking sub-culture may seem obvious, yet huge sums have been spent in the past on Government anti-drinking advertising campaigns that simply fuel the sense that sensible drinking is boring and conformist, while binge drinking is subversive fun.”

The researchers analysed data from a sample of 89 young people in the UK between 2004 and 2007. Data sets included interview and discussion group transcripts, ethnographic field notes compiled on nights out, and analysis of 200 alcohol advertisements. The study is the latest in a series of work deriving from the data.

“Government messages that say ‘drink sensibly’ ignore the ways many young people actually enjoy drinking. This research also has implications for other areas of Government health policy, where compulsive and excessive consumption can sometimes be fuelled by a need to defy and subvert official rules.”


Opposing Forces.

Teenage exploration and risk taking could be explained by dramatic changes in the brain that allow elaborate planning and are driven by the need for immediate reward, according to a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist who will be talking about her research in a panel discussion and press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, in San Jose, Calif.

Using an elegant model in which eye movements, or saccades, reveal insight into executive brain function, Beatriz Luna, Ph.D., Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, Pitt School of Medicine, has studied hundreds of young volunteers to examine brain development during the transition between childhood and adulthood.

“Our studies are beginning to challenge the traditional concept that the teenage brain can’t plan because of an immature prefrontal cortex,” Dr. Luna said. “Our findings indicate that the teen prefrontal cortex is not much different than in the adult, but it can be easily overruled by heightened motivation centers in the brain. You have this mixture of newly gained executive control plus extra reward that is pulling the teenager toward immediate gratification.”

In the experiments, volunteers are instructed to immediately look away from a small light that randomly appears on a screen in front of them. This “anti-saccade” test shows if the brain is able to engage the planning centers of the prefrontal cortex to overcome the impulse to look toward the light rather than away from it. Dr. Luna’s team has found in previous studies that children succeed in about half their tries, teens in about 70 percent of tries and adults in about 90 percent of tries. People with mental illnesses typically struggle with the task.

The study team had volunteers do the same tasks while scanning their brains with functional MRI. They found that much of the architecture of mature brain is in place by adolescence, but the ability of the networks to talk to one another and integrate information is still a work in progress.

“Further enhancement of this network integration is likely why adults can switch and very quickly adapt their behavior to changing circumstances, which is more difficult for adolescents,” Dr. Luna explained.

She added that while parents and teachers sometimes find bewildering the choices teens might make, their brains are perfectly adapted to explore and take some chances as they become independent adults.

“Across societies and species, we know that adolescence is a period of increased sensation seeking that can lead to risk taking, which increases mortality rate,” Dr. Luna said. “Also, we often see during this period the first signs of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and eating disorders. All of these have a neurobiological basis, so if we know how the brain is changing, we might be able to figure out a way to intervene earlier in life.”


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