The Screenagers Podcast

Decoding Adolescent Decision Making on Screens and Off

In this episode of The Screenagers Podcast, Dr. Ruston focuses on the science behind teen risky decision-making, both online and offline. Dr. Ruston speaks with researchers who shed light on the latest brain science, helping us better understand the biology behind adolescents' decision-making processes. With insights from experts such as psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke and psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, parents will glean practical advice on guiding their children toward wiser decisions and setting fair consequences for rule-breaking.

episode notes

Research References

Adolescents’ Cognitive Capacity Reaches Adult Levels Prior to Their Psychosocial Maturity: Evidence for a “Maturity Gap” in a Multinational, Cross-Sectional Sample (Law and Human Behavior)

Biological substrates of emotional reactivity and regulation in adolescence during an emotional go-nogo task (Biological Psychiatry)


Featured Experts

Laurence Steinberg, PhD 

Adriana Galvan, PhD

Lisa Damour, PhD

Anna Lambke, MD

Time code of the episode

00:04 Introduction and the Complexity of Decision Making

01:23 Understanding the Science Behind Teen Decision Making

02:55 The Role of Emotions in Decision Making

05:05 Real-life Consequences of Rash Decisions

06:17 The Neuroscience of Adolescence

07:38 The Impact of Emotions on Teenagers' Decision Making

10:30 Strategies for Parents to Help Teens Make Wiser Decisions

13:19 The Importance of Setting Limits and Fair Consequences

16:50 Understanding and Empathizing with the Challenges Teens Face

17:50 Conclusion: Encouraging Wise Decision Making

Episode Transcript

12 year old boy: 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. 

Delaney: Hello, I'm Delaney Ruston, physician and creator of the three Screenagers movies, and this is the Screenagers podcast. Decisions, decisions, decisions. As humans, we make a lot of them all the time.

And adolescents, they make a lot of them as well. And they're making decisions ranging from things like what should they eat for lunch, who should they ask for help for the math problem, to things like Should they share an edgy meme, sneak time on a video game, or partake in drinking alcohol at a party?

Kids and teens make great decisions all the time, and I mean lots of really wonderful decisions. But sometimes their decisions are not so wise. They can make decisions that put them at risk, cause harm, and decisions that make us adults. It's completely baffled, like what were they thinking? And as we just heard at the start of this show, that was a 12 year old that felt pretty invincible as he said, and we know other young people can feel that way.

And that can be a risky feeling indeed. Today, we look at the science behind tweens and teens decision making, and we explore practical things adults can do to help them make wiser choices and help them stay safer. We're also going to discuss how to provide fair consequences when children's decision making involves breaking rules, be it screen time rules or other rules.

And we will hear from people like psychologist Lisa DeMoor along the way. Let's start by hearing from Larry Steinberg. He's been a leading researcher in the field of adolescence, and I spoke with him about the general context in which teens make decisions. 

Larry Steinberg, PhD: Psychologists distinguish between what we call cold cognition and hot cognition.

The cold cognition is the thinking that we do when we're in ideal situations. Often when we're by ourselves. 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. When we compare adolescents and adults on tests of cold cognition, by the time kids are 15 or 16, they perform just as well as adults.

Delaney: I just want to highlight this point. When it comes to giving teens and adults scenarios, and they're asked for how they would handle these situations or respond to a dilemma, teens perform essentially equally well on such tests. Granted, adults have a lot more life experience and wisdom, but these testing scenarios, they don't rely on that.

So we're talking about situations that are called cold cognition situations. But now, how about when decisions are being made under so called hot circumstances? 

Larry Steinberg, PhD: Hot cognition is when we have to think under conditions that aren't ideal. Under conditions when we're emotionally aroused, like when we're upset.

Or when we're really exuberant about something. When you're with your friends, as opposed to when you're by yourself, or when there's, or when you're tired, or stressed. 

Delaney : How does being in a hot cognition setting impact decision making? 

Larry Steinberg, PhD: Under hot cognitive circumstances, adults perform better than adolescents.

Delaney: Adults perform better than teens in these settings. Steinberg explains why teens decision making is more compromised. 

Larry Steinberg, PhD: Their thinking is more easily undermined because the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain are still developing. In particular, the connections between the prefrontal cortex and more emotional parts of your brain that are still developing even into the early 20s.

And those connections are what help you perform well under emotionally arousing conditions. 

Delaney: Connections from neurons in the front of the brain to neurons in the emotional region of the brain are still under construction. Not only are neuronal connections being laid down, and by the way certain connections are being pruned away, A key point I want to add is that the neuronal cells themselves are still under construction.

It turns out that their outer layer, called myelin, which helps signals move more effectively down their cell bodies, are still being built. This is in stark contrast to other cells in our bodies. Think heart cells, liver cells, kidney cells. All these cells are formed by the time we're born. But brain cells, neurons, are not fully formed, nor are the connections throughout the brain.

It's wild. So when it comes to responding wisely in emotionally charged situations, teens are at a biologic disadvantage. It makes perfect sense given this, that quick decisions and hot conditions happen all the time in the teen years. And this makes me think of Hannah, a 13 year old who talked about a rash decision she made in the first Greenagers movie.

A boy in school asked her to send a picture to him in her bra.  

Hannah: I took a picture of myself in my bra, and I sent it to him. I wanted to please him because I really liked him. All of a sudden, right as I sent it, he told everyone, and one of my really close friends liked him. The person sent a picture to her, and she showed everyone

Delaney: It's a quick decision. Decision and then bam, big time consequences. The picture went around school and Hannah felt awful. 

Hannah: When I got to school, as soon as I walked in the door, I knew that everyone else knew. You can just feel it like the hatred or like the disapproval of the people, just like looking at you, like you're dirty or something.

I felt really alone because everyone disliked me. 

Delaney: I remember interviewing Hannah and her saying that she decided to send the picture within seconds. She really didn't stop to think about it. And she told me how she felt really sad and embarrassed for months. It was a hot cognition moment, emotions were activated, and her decision was made really quickly.

To understand more about this phenomenon, I spoke with one of my favorite researchers of adolescence, Adriana Galvin. Dr. Galvin is the author of The Neuroscience of Adolescence.

Adriana Galvan PhD: During adolescence, something really interesting happens with the brain. In part, there's a change in the prefrontal cortex, so brain regions that help you think about the future, plan in advance, or think about abstract concepts.

But there's another really interesting shift in the emotional systems in the brain. And this is a broad network, but roughly they include the amygdala, the hippocampus. And these are regions that become hyperexcitable. What that means is that in response to the same emotional stimulus or arousing stimulus, the teenage brain is on high alert.

And so this translates into behavior that may be more emotionally reactive. 

Delaney: So not only are the neurons in the front of the brain undergoing construction, But it turns out that the emotion centers of the teen brain have become much more active. The neurons that signal emotions fire more strongly. So emotions are firing strongly and the top down control is not fully formed.

This can help explain Hannah's decision to send the picture, the boy's decision to share it, and the friend's choice to send it around to other people. I asked Adriana to share her research concerning how emotions impact teenagers decision making

Adriana Galvan PhD: So, we recruited participants, adolescent participants and adult participants to come to the lab, and we presented them with a series of emotional stimuli, emotional faces.

The faces ranged in emotion. They could be angry faces, or sad faces, or happy faces. All of them intended to elicit emotional response. And at the same time, we asked them to play a cognitive control task. That is, it's typically called a go no go task, where they're asked to respond to a series of stimuli, such as different letters.

But every time they see a letter X, they are to withhold their response. And all of this happens against the backdrop of those emotional faces

Delaney: So the participants are given tasks, and they're also told when they see the X, they're not to give a response. This is the no part of the task. So they're in this groove, giving responses, doing different things, and then the X comes up and they have to exert control and not do an action.

Adriana Galvan PhD: And what we found is that the adolescents were not as good at having self control when they were presented with these emotional faces.

Delaney: If the teens weren't shown emotional faces before the go no go activity, their ability to exert control was very similar to adults. But when they're given these emotional faces beforehand, which we know triggers them on some emotional level, they have a much harder time exerting control as compared to adults.

So what is the reason for this? Here's Dr. Galvin once again. 

Adriana Galvan PhD: Their prefrontal cortex, which is typically in the role of dampening the emotional response or controlling the behavior. That is not showing as much connection with these emotional systems. It seems both things are going on. One, the adolescent emotional response is stronger than it is in adults.

That is, their brain is more reactive to these emotional faces. But at the same time, they don't have that same communication between the control regions and the emotional systems. That helps adults dampen their emotional response and exert more controlled behavior.

Delaney: Dr. Galvin learned this by having participants do the go, no go tasks while being in MRI machines that show in real time brain activity.

Adriana Galvan PhD: 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

Delaney: Decision making is complicated. Substances, relationships, online life, emotionality that happens with all of this. How do we as parents help our kids make wiser decisions? One thing that can be helpful is talking with kids in calm situations to plan for different scenarios. I interviewed psychologist and New York Times Lisa Damour PhD, about this exact thing.

Lisa 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, PhD: I think the key in this, is they should go into these situations with a plan.

And this really brings us to the idea of hot and cold reasoning. That when they're in the situation, they shouldn't really be trying to make things up on the fly. Their need to get along, their wish to belong, becomes very powerful. 

Delaney: That's so true. 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?

Lisa Damour, PhD: What'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.

Delaney: What are some examples, Lisa, of things you've heard teenagers say in these kind of situations?

Lisa Damour, PhD: I've heard kids say, "you know, I would, but I'm on a med", or "I'm not supposed to drink, or, you know, I would, but I've got a game tomorrow, and so I've got to be in good shape for it"

Delaney: Let me add here that research shows that when it comes to things like alcohol, vaping, weed, and other substances, when parents share with kids the reasons why they hope their kids won't use, and then also having clear rules around not permitting use, it turns out it helps youth make wiser decisions around substances.

Recent podcast episodes on vaping and weed talk more about this.

Another strategy parents can employ to help youth have less chance of making regrettable decisions has to do with having tech out of the room during sleep time. We know that when people, teens in particular, are tired, their ability to make wiser decisions goes down.

And so it's one of the big reasons why having devices out of the bedroom is such a key maneuver that we can help teens do as parents. The downside of having devices in the bedroom is that we know that many teens use them at night, and when they're in this tired state, their brains are less able to regulate their emotions, and therefore they're more vulnerable to making decisions that they could later regret.

What's also great about tech out of the bedrooms for sleep is that we know this helps youth get better sleep, which helps them make wiser decisions throughout the entire day.

Meanwhile, I spoke with author and psychiatrist Anna Lembke, MD about how we can help our kids make less risky decisions when we set limits and have fair consequences, not overly harsh ones.

Anna Lembke, MD: 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. Bye. Kids know what to expect. The absence of guardrails for humans is a terrifying and destructive thing because we all need to know what the limits are.

We want choice, but we don't want it. Too much choice. They know that there are certain rules to live by, and if you break those rules, there will be consequences. And they won't be too harsh, you know, they come with love, right? You won't be shunned from the family, but you know, this is not okay to do that.

Delaney: I often say that consequences include having a discussion. The discussion is the consequence. So just keep that in mind.

And here's Dr. Laura Kastner, who's an author and psychologist. Who talks about the importance of having our kids input when we're talking about consequences.

Laura Kastner PhD: 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.

Delaney: I have to say I really liked hearing that example that 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 like, is that okay to let the teen pick the night?

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

So they can also have an input into consequences and how those consequences are going to happen. But let me add that this doesn't mean that our kids won't be mad at us at times for having rules and enforcing them. You better believe they will. But as Dr. Lembke talks about, limits are important because without them, that can be terrifying.

Here she is again. 

Anna Lembke, MD: 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, you know, to blame them.

Delaney: Having our kids be mad at us, it's not easy, and many parents, including myself, really 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 really important for our kids.

I have a lot of empathy for our kids. So many things coming at them online, decisions needed to be made about all sorts of social situations, [00:17:00] substances, and more. Let's hear again from the 12 year old boy who we heard from at the start of the show. He was having a sleepover and he and his friends snuck out of the house.

12 year old boy: 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, and I got caught. If I would have thought about it, then I probably wouldn't have done it. I just didn't think about it.

Delaney: It happens. Our kids can make choices that will make us adults think, what were they thinking?

Why didn't they stop and think more about the potential downsides? Sharing with kids the science we discussed today, and having discussions in calm situations about decisions they may face are ways to help them be more conscious of such challenges. And one final thing we can do as parents that I want to suggest is to remember we get more of what we name.

So pointing out to our kids the many times that they're making decisions that are really wise is going to increase their making those decisions. It's a gold medal parenting move. Thanks for listening today, and if you can tell one friend about the Screen Ages podcast that really helps spread the word and helps people find the show, be sure to go to screen ages to find the show notes from this episode.

Learn about screening our movies and sign up for my weekly blog about parenting in the screen age now in its eighth year. This Screenagers Podcast episode was produced by me, your host, Delaney Ruston, Lisa Tabb, Rebecca Tollen, and Alan Gofinski. Alan is also our sound editor.

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