Due to the immaturity of the teen brain, lacking of the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, teenagers are more prone to taking risks. However, there’s a social element involved when an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks. Their brain show less reward-related activity after taking a risk and such phenomenon is called “social scaffolding” due to adult’s presence being the main factor in helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour.
Twenty-three 15-year-olds (9 girls) participated in the study and had their brains scanned while they played a risk-based game that involved going through a set of 26 traffic lights as quickly as possible and deciding at each set whether to accelerate or brake as the lights turned amber. Two rounds of game were played, once in the presence of their mother who was in the scan control room, and the other time in the presence of an unfamiliar female professor who was described as an expert in adolescent driving behaviour.
There was a higher tendency for teens to take lesser risks in their mum’s presence as compared to the professor, however, this difference did not reach statistical significance. On the other hand, there were statistical differences between the conditions when mum was present, the teens’ brains showed more reward-related brain activity after making safe decisions and less reward-related brain activity after making risky decisions. This shows that with mum’s supervision, teens seemed to make caution a more pleasurable approach, at least at a neural level.
Unfortunately, the study is hampered by several methodological issues such as the small sample size and the lack of a baseline control condition: the latter means it’s not clear if differences between the conditions are caused by the benefits of a mother’s presence or the opposite effect of an unfamiliar adult. Also, many issues are left unanswered, such as: would a father have the same apparent effect as a mother? And does the quality of the parent-teen relationship matter?
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Source material from British Psychological Society