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Why Do Teenagers Make Bad Choices? One Word: Science

Teenage brains are still figuring it out.

On tonight’s new episode of “One Bad Choice,” we met Levi Sparks, an Indiana teen whose life changed in an instant when his friends decided to break into a stranger's house. They thought the house was empty, but they were wrong. When the homeowner shot and killed one of Levi’s friends, saying it was self-defense, it was the burglarizing teens (and Levi, who stayed behind on a porch across the street) who were charged with murder.

This comes from a controversial Indiana law that claims those committing certain felonies (in this case burglary) can be convicted of murderif anyone is killed during the incident.

The teens are now more than willing to admit it was a bad idea to have gone into that house and scared the homeowner, but activists on their behalf feel the wrong charges have been filed. So why did the teens feel breaking and entering was a good idea in the first place? It turns out it might have to do with science.

  • The Teenage Brain Is Not Fully Developed
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    Dr. Frances E. Jensen's groundbreaking book, "The Teenage Brain" highlights the fact that people’s brains usually don’t fully develop until about their mid-20s. "We have a natural insulation ... called myelin," Jensen told NPR in an interview earlier this year. "It's a fat, and it takes time. Cells have to build myelin, and they grow it around the outside of these tracks, and that takes years."

  • Risky Business In The Front
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    So what part of the brain involves collected, calm reasoning? That’s the very front of the brain, and that doesn’t fully develop until later. It’s also the part that deals with empathy. "The last place to be connected — to be fully myelinated — is the front of your brain," said Jensen. "And what's in the front? Your prefrontal cortex and your frontal cortex. These are areas where we have insight, empathy, these executive functions such as impulse control, risk-taking behavior."

  • Acting Before You Think
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    The amygdala is the part of your brain that controls fear and aggression. It develops really early, which was probably a good thing when we were running away from predators back in the day. However, in modern times, the amygdala's early development can cause some problems, as the part of your brain that controls decision making hasn't quite caught up.

  • Focused On The Reward
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    The reward center of the brain also develops earlier than the frontal cortex. This means teens are prone to seeking out pleasure and adrenaline without thinking about the consequences. "The brain’s reward center, just like its fear circuit, matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex," wrote Richard Friedman in a 2014 New York Times op-ed. "That reward center drives much of teenagers’ risky behavior. This behavioral paradox also helps explain why adolescents are particularly prone to injury and trauma."

If you're having trouble making good choices, talking with someone can help. For resources and support, visit Half Of Us.