Couch surfing and other stunts 'normal' for teen brains

The risky stunts that teens and young adults engage in and record for posterity on YouTube may seem irresponsible and even crazy to some, but experts say reckless behaviour is a normal part of brain development.

Reckless desire for danger and risk a typical part of neural development, say experts

Couch and car surfing and other risky stunts that feature so prominently on YouTube and in popular movies like Jackass may seem irresponsible and even crazy to some, but experts say the poor decision-making involved in such activities is a normal part of brain development.

But while they may be a normal part of adolescence, it doesn't mean such stunts can't end badly. That was the case in Quebec last week when a 22-year old man, François Hallé, died on a country road in Saint-Benjamin, south of Quebec City, while riding on a couch being dragged behind a truck. 

Some of Hallé's friends who spoke with CBC's French-language service said that while they weren't there this time, they had couch surfed before and didn't think much about what they were doing. They had seen others do it and didn't think anything bad would happen to them.

Teens seek out risk

Ian Manion, a psychologist at the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health in Ottawa, describes their response as fairly typical.

"Research and studies suggest adolescents engage in risky and dangerous behaviour because it's a part of normal brain development," Manion said. "Teenagers seek out risk-taking behaviour because of the complex brain systems involved in decision-making."


Where do you draw the line between risk and fun? Have your say.

Sandeep Mishra, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Guelph, agrees.

"The reality is that teenagers tend to make riskier decisions," he said. "The bulk of the evidence suggests that risk-taking in teenage years is both normal and typical."

Adolescents generally have a more difficult time controlling impulses, because the brain is still developing, and they "exercise more impaired decision-making tendencies in general," said Mishra.

Wiring of the brain

A study conducted by Cornell University, University of Rochester and the New York State Center for School Safety suggests a teenager's brain is different than an adult's brain.

'The teen brain is not a finished product but is a work in progress.' — Cornell University study

"Recent research by scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health using magnetic resonance imaging has found that the teen brain is not a finished product but is a work in progress," the study said. 

"Until recently, most scientists believed that the major 'wiring' of the brain was completed by as early as three years of age and that the brain was fully mature by the age of 10 or 12. New findings show that the greatest changes to the parts of the brain that are responsible for functions such as self-control, judgment, emotions and organization occur between puberty and adulthood."

Males vs. female

Riskier behaviour is more prevalent in males, says Manion, and young men are likely more impulsive than young women.

Mishra agrees.

"Males have more to gain in terms of respect among peers," he said. "It's a fairly typical situation that you'll see young males showing off for each other in the company of other males and the company of females. If you can take a risk, then you'll look more impressive."

Mishra also points out that research suggests the peak in risk-taking in early adolescents can be anywhere between the ages of 14 and 24 and is more noticeable among males.

Both Manion and Mishra agree that the desire to fit in can exacerbate poor decision-making, and when peer pressure kicks in or emotions are running high, risk-taking may increase.

"It's unlikely you will see teens try things out by themselves, but in a group situation, no problem," explains Manion, "because in a group situation, you can push limits." 


'Healthy risk-taking is an important part of growth.'— Ian Manion, psychologist

The role that personality plays in the level of risk-taking is also very significant.

"There are certain types of people that crave attention and are more prone to taking bigger risks" says Manion. "They are the attention seekers. There was always one class clown."

Still, for many, this doesn't explain the rationale behind high-risk stunts like the one that took Hallé's life.

"Not everyone thinks ahead," Manion said. "They may leap before they look, but everyone takes risks in life. If you do it in a measured way, you can take healthier risks. The difference is how much forward thinking is involved."

Although risk-taking has negative aspects and can even prove fatal, it has a positive side as well.

"Taking part in some risky behaviour is normal and necessary for teenagers," says Manion. "Healthy risk-taking is an important part of growth."