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Teens and Planning Ahead: It Takes Time

Researchers Find Risky Choices Tied to Still-Developing Capacity to Think Things Through
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 17, 2011 -- Teens and risky behavior often go together, leaving parents frustrated when their adolescents make poor choices.

Now, new research shows that by late adolescence teens usually do have the ability to think ahead and make decisions as well as do most adults. However, the teens may not use those skills before they decide to do something risky.

Blame impulsivity, says researcher Laurence Steinberg, PhD, professor of psychology at  Temple University. "The main reason adolescents are not as good as adults in planning ahead is, adolescents are more impulsive."

"It's not just that teenagers are unwilling to think about the future consequences," he says. The new study "shows that they may be fundamentally unable to."

Experts used to blame teens' still developing working memory on their risky choices, Steinberg tells WebMD. They thought that teens were just not as adept as thinking through the sometimes multiple steps or facts involved in decisions.

"That's not the whole story," Steinberg tells WebMD, at least not when it comes to older teens. The still-developing working memory may help explain risky choices up until about ages 16, he says. After that, when teens make poor choices, it's often due to poor impulse control, he finds.

The study is published online in Child Development.

Teens & Planning Ahead: Study

Steinberg evaluated 890 participants, ages 10 to 30. He gave them a computerized test of strategic planning and problem solving called the Tower of London.

The test requires people to rearrange a stack of three differently colored balls to match a picture of the new arrangement. They must use as few moves as possible. To finish, they must plan ahead.

Steinberg also tested the participants on reasoning, memory, and self-control tasks.

In the Tower of London test, he says, ''there are easy ones you can solve in three moves. The harder ones require six or seven."

Those who were older did better on the tower test, a finding that wasn't unexpected. That reflected a greater ability to solve problems and plan ahead. These harder tests tax the brain's frontal lobes, which are still maturing in teens.

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