Nobody sets out to raise a bratty teenager. And yet, well, it happens. If it does, British researchers have some interesting advice for parents who spend their lives taking away cell phones and tablets as punishment: Don't. Adolescent brains respond better to positive incentives and aren't all that motivated to avoid penalties.
According to the report, published in PLOS Computational Biology, British researchers found that teens and adults learn in different ways. The Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London study found that in some cases, positive feedback has a greater effect than negative feedback on adolescent learning.
To get a better idea of how adolescents learn, two groups -- one made up of adolescents aged 12 to 17, and the other made up of adults aged 18 to 32 -- were asked to play a special kind of computer game.
Participants saw different pairs of abstract symbols on the computer screen and had to choose one by pushing a button. The symbol they chose could result in a reward (winning a point), a punishment (losing a point) or no outcome. Participants strove to score as many points as possible because there was a cash reward for the highest score.
Initially, participants didn't know which symbol was which and had to learn by using trial and error. Adult volunteers learned from both positive and negative feedback, while the teens responded only to the positive.
The study's author wrote that this was because the part of the brain that processes punishment and consequences isn't fully developed in adolescence.
The criminal justice system has long treated juveniles differently than adults for much the same reason. During adolescence, the brain undergoes dramatic changes in structure and function, impacting the way youth process and react to information. The region of the brain that is the last to develop is the one that controls many of the abilities that govern goal-oriented, rational decision-making, such as long-term planning, impulse control, insight, and judgment.
So if Junior is staying up all night on his computer, maybe the answer is not to take it away and hide it in the dirty clothes hamper. Instead promise him a trip to Disneyland if he's in bed and asleep by 10 p.m. Can't hurt to try.