Teen Sex: Rethinking the Rewards

In an interesting Wall Street Journal article, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” the author referred to a study that suggests that adolescents “aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do.”  The reward centers of the adolescent brain are activated with an intensity greater than that of the adult brain.  Think of  first love, the forbidden fruit of sneaking a smoke, putting the pedal to the floor of Dad’s car, etc.

And what reward is the strongest?  The article says that “What teenagers want most of all are social rewards, especially the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in an MRI brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks.”

I just finished a week in a school where the boys were admitting that they biggest pressure they faced was from other boys urging them to become sexually active with their date or girlfriend.  This was no surprise to me, as “bragging rights” is almost always on top of the list of reasons teens give for having sex.

If it’s so rewarding to be able to brag about sexual exploits, getting the admiration and high-fives of one’s buddies, what can parents and other caring adults do to counteract that? Perhaps elevating the risks to front-of-mind more frequently might help.  But even better, help them think through the benefits of being abstinent.  Since keeping the conversation going is important, why not sit down together with your son or daughter and come up with a list of all the benefits (besides avoiding STDs and pregnancy) of being abstinent?  Setting an exciting picture of the future before them might just make the temporary kudos of peers pale in comparison.