Social and Interpersonal Development

Decoding Adolescent Decision-Making On-Screens and Off

Delaney Ruston, MD
January 23, 2024
Image of a brain scan with diagnostic data surrounding it

As a physician and the creator of the "Screenagers" movies, I've always been fascinated by the intricacies of adolescent decision-making. Through the Screenagers podcast, I've had the opportunity to delve deep into this topic, and in a podcast episode I released yesterday, I share some of those insights with you. I invite you to listen to the Podcast, but if you prefer to read, here is a summary of the podcast:

Listen Here: Apple Podcasts // Spotify // Website

The Invincible Adolescent Mind

In the podcast, we hear from a 12-year-old boy who candidly shares, "I knew that my parents were going to get super mad if I got caught, but I was feeling invincible that day, and I was like, I'm not going to get caught." This statement perfectly encapsulates the risky mindset that many adolescents experience.

Expert Insights on Teen Decision-Making

Larry Steinberg, a leading researcher in adolescence, explained the concepts of 'cold cognition' and 'hot cognition.' 

"Cold cognition is the thinking that we do when we're in ideal situations…. When you're well prepared for a test in school, and you're sitting down, and you're taking the test, there are no distractions, and you're in a good mood." 

Interestingly, he points out that "by the time kids are 15 or 16, they perform just as well as adults" in these scenarios.

However, when it comes to 'hot cognition,' which happens under emotionally arousing conditions, adolescents don't fare as well. 

Steinberg notes, "Under hot cognitive circumstances, adults perform better than adolescents," This difference is largely due to the ongoing development in teens' brains, particularly the connections between the prefrontal cortex and more emotional parts of the brain.

But it is not only top-down control that is happening; it is also due to changes in the brain's emotional center.

The Role of Emotions in Teen Decisions

Dr. Adriana Galvan, author of "The Neuroscience of Adolescence," explains, 

"In part, there's a change in the prefrontal cortex... But there's another really interesting shift in the emotional systems in the brain." She highlights how these emotional centers become hyperexcitable during adolescence, leading to more emotionally reactive behavior.

Adriana Galvan, PhD

Dr. Galvan has done fascinating experiments to compare the impact of being triggered emotionally as teens vs. adults and how that impacts self-control. Participants are shown emotional faces before doing lab tests, in which they sometimes have to perform self-control. She has participants be in MRI machines while doing this.

Teens have a much harder time doing the self-control tasks when exposed to the emotional faces (which causes them to have an emotional response) than adults. 

Dr. Galvan says,  

“In the MRI, what we see is greater activation in these emotional systems, and when we do what's called a connectivity analysis, in which we compare the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional systems in the adolescents as compared to the adults, the connections in the adolescents are not as strong

Guiding Adolescents Towards Better Decisions

As parents and caregivers, how can we guide our teens to make wiser choices? One thing is using what we know about cold and hot cognition settings to help your kids think of their goals and plans during cold cognition settings in advance of hot situations. 

In the podcast, I ask psychologist Lisa Damour, “We know that teens are going to face different situations,  like at parties when they're going to be given choices like smoking or drinking or other risky activities. And as parents, how do we help them think about this in advance?”

Lisa Damour says,  “I think the key in this is they should go into these situations with a plan.”

This brings us to the idea of hot and cold reasoning. When they're in the situation, they shouldn't really try to make things up on the fly. We must remember that their need to get along, their wish to belong, becomes very powerful. 

Lisa agrees, saying I think about the teen years and how incredibly challenging it can be to go against whatever's happening in a situation. … What parents can do that's most helpful is that when young people are under cold reasoning conditions when they are in your kitchen at five o'clock and have the full power of their frontal lobe available, that's a really good time to say, Look, I know you're not planning to drink at this party. What's your plan for how you're going to manage that?

If somebody offers, what are you going to say? Making a plan and going in with a plan makes it much more likely that they'll stick with the plan, as opposed to having to come up with it on the spot.”

Lisa gives examples: "Some kids say, I would, but I'm on a med. Or, I'm not supposed to drink. Or, I would, but I've got a game tomorrow, and so I've got to be in good shape.”

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Providing limits is a good thing

Setting appropriate boundaries and consequences is also crucial. As psychiatrist Anna Lembke puts it, "If in a loving way we create appropriate boundaries and have rules and there are understandable consequences that are not overly harsh for transgressions, that's a really healthy environment to raise a kid in."

Psychiatrist & Author, Anna Lembke, MD

An example of a limit that can help decrease risky decisions is having devices out of the bedroom. At night, kids are tired, and we know being tired increases fewer wise decisions, so not having a tempting device available makes the temptation of seeing who is online or scrolling TikIok out of the picture. 

Meanwhile, extra sleep will give them more brain capacity during the day, which also helps foster safer decisions. 

Collaborative consequence setting can work great

Dr. Laura Kastner, an author and psychologist, talks about the importance of having our kids' input when talking about consequences:  “If you're caught, there will be consequences. We'll talk about those. We might even negotiate this instead of that. Like one of my patients this week, he has a thing this weekend, so he's postponing his grounding until next weekend. That was fine. That was fine. Give him that. Why not? It worked great. They negotiate the rules. They have some input on the consequences. That's a good parent-child dynamic.” 

I really liked hearing that example where the family decided to take the teen's input about the night that the consequence, the grounding, would happen. I must confess that when Dr. Kastner told me that, at first, I had this reaction: “Is it okay to let the teen pick the night?”

It showed me how ingrained the punishment model of consequences is in the media and such, that kids aren't supposed to have an input. And yet, we can be a lot more creative, working with teens around this. We know from research that when youth have input into rules, or at least their feelings are being heard, this positively impacts them in many ways.

Kids will be mad at us at times for having rules

So they can also have an input into consequences and how those consequences will happen. But let me add that this doesn't mean our kids won't be mad at us sometimes for having rules and enforcing them. But as Dr. Lembke says in the episode,  limits are important because it can be terrifying without them.

That's a very terrifying thing because then what happens if we're not happy or our lives are not going well, we feel we only have ourselves to blame. There's quite a lot of relief in being able as a teenager to be angry at your parent and, for that developmental period, to blame them.

Having our kids be mad at us is not easy, and many parents, including myself, have to work hard to tolerate the many feelings that come up, like frustration, guilt, whatever the feelings. In the second Screenagers film, Screenagers Next Chapter, I share the uncomfortable feelings I have when I have to enforce a rule about tech and how I work to tolerate the feelings because I know that having fair limits is important for our kids.

Celebrating Wise Choices

An essential aspect of guiding adolescents is acknowledging and praising their wise decisions. By highlighting these moments, we encourage more of such behavior.  Examples include saying, “Hey, I have seen how the last two days you loaded the dishwasher before playing your video game like we discussed. That shows a lot of responsibility, and it's so great to see this.” Or perhaps, “I noticed how you are spending more time with Tom, which I know you wanted to make happen. Good on you.” 

Calm Conversations in Unheated Moments

Understanding adolescent decision-making is a complex yet crucial part of guiding our young ones through these formative years. By engaging in proactive conversations, setting clear boundaries, and reinforcing positive decisions, we can support them in navigating the challenges and triumphs of adolescence.

Here are questions to start a conversation on this in your family or group:

  1. Can you think of a time when you felt invincible and took a risk? How did you feel before, during, and after that decision? 
  2. Have you ever made a quick decision in an emotionally charged moment that you later regretted? What influenced your decision the most at that time – your emotions, peer pressure, or something else? 
  3. What are your thoughts on having clear rules and consequences at home, especially regarding technology use? Do these boundaries help or hinder your decision-making?

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Social and Interpersonal Development

Decoding Adolescent Decision-Making On-Screens and Off

Delaney Ruston, MD
January 23, 2024
Image of a brain scan with diagnostic data surrounding it

As a physician and the creator of the "Screenagers" movies, I've always been fascinated by the intricacies of adolescent decision-making. Through the Screenagers podcast, I've had the opportunity to delve deep into this topic, and in a podcast episode I released yesterday, I share some of those insights with you. I invite you to listen to the Podcast, but if you prefer to read, here is a summary of the podcast:

Listen Here: Apple Podcasts // Spotify // Website

The Invincible Adolescent Mind

In the podcast, we hear from a 12-year-old boy who candidly shares, "I knew that my parents were going to get super mad if I got caught, but I was feeling invincible that day, and I was like, I'm not going to get caught." This statement perfectly encapsulates the risky mindset that many adolescents experience.

Expert Insights on Teen Decision-Making

Larry Steinberg, a leading researcher in adolescence, explained the concepts of 'cold cognition' and 'hot cognition.' 

"Cold cognition is the thinking that we do when we're in ideal situations…. When you're well prepared for a test in school, and you're sitting down, and you're taking the test, there are no distractions, and you're in a good mood." 

Interestingly, he points out that "by the time kids are 15 or 16, they perform just as well as adults" in these scenarios.

However, when it comes to 'hot cognition,' which happens under emotionally arousing conditions, adolescents don't fare as well. 

Steinberg notes, "Under hot cognitive circumstances, adults perform better than adolescents," This difference is largely due to the ongoing development in teens' brains, particularly the connections between the prefrontal cortex and more emotional parts of the brain.

But it is not only top-down control that is happening; it is also due to changes in the brain's emotional center.

The Role of Emotions in Teen Decisions

Dr. Adriana Galvan, author of "The Neuroscience of Adolescence," explains, 

"In part, there's a change in the prefrontal cortex... But there's another really interesting shift in the emotional systems in the brain." She highlights how these emotional centers become hyperexcitable during adolescence, leading to more emotionally reactive behavior.

Adriana Galvan, PhD

Dr. Galvan has done fascinating experiments to compare the impact of being triggered emotionally as teens vs. adults and how that impacts self-control. Participants are shown emotional faces before doing lab tests, in which they sometimes have to perform self-control. She has participants be in MRI machines while doing this.

Teens have a much harder time doing the self-control tasks when exposed to the emotional faces (which causes them to have an emotional response) than adults. 

Dr. Galvan says,  

“In the MRI, what we see is greater activation in these emotional systems, and when we do what's called a connectivity analysis, in which we compare the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional systems in the adolescents as compared to the adults, the connections in the adolescents are not as strong

Guiding Adolescents Towards Better Decisions

As parents and caregivers, how can we guide our teens to make wiser choices? One thing is using what we know about cold and hot cognition settings to help your kids think of their goals and plans during cold cognition settings in advance of hot situations. 

In the podcast, I ask psychologist Lisa Damour, “We know that teens are going to face different situations,  like at parties when they're going to be given choices like smoking or drinking or other risky activities. And as parents, how do we help them think about this in advance?”

Lisa Damour says,  “I think the key in this is they should go into these situations with a plan.”

This brings us to the idea of hot and cold reasoning. When they're in the situation, they shouldn't really try to make things up on the fly. We must remember that their need to get along, their wish to belong, becomes very powerful. 

Lisa agrees, saying I think about the teen years and how incredibly challenging it can be to go against whatever's happening in a situation. … What parents can do that's most helpful is that when young people are under cold reasoning conditions when they are in your kitchen at five o'clock and have the full power of their frontal lobe available, that's a really good time to say, Look, I know you're not planning to drink at this party. What's your plan for how you're going to manage that?

If somebody offers, what are you going to say? Making a plan and going in with a plan makes it much more likely that they'll stick with the plan, as opposed to having to come up with it on the spot.”

Lisa gives examples: "Some kids say, I would, but I'm on a med. Or, I'm not supposed to drink. Or, I would, but I've got a game tomorrow, and so I've got to be in good shape.”

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