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March 2023 Research Roundup

Highlights from Recent Research on Adolescent Development

We are excited to introduce our first quarterly Research Roundup–an overview of some of the recent research that highlights the important learning and growth of our adolescent years, and how adults can support positive development.

You can suggest research articles for future roundups by emailing or sign up to receive the quarterly research roundup in your inbox.

In This Roundup


Exploration & Risk Taking

Oh, the places you’ll go! Real-world exploration is beneficial for adolescent well-being.

Natalie Saragosa-Harris and co-authors examined adolescent risk taking by using geolocation tracking to record the amount of exploration–visiting new places or taking new routes–in daily movement patterns of about 60 adolescents and adults (ages 13 to 27) over a three-month period in New York City. Older adolescents, ages 18 to 21, were most likely to explore, meaning that their movements around the city varied the most over the course of the day. Both adolescents and adults felt better on days when they explored more, and more exploration was linked to larger social networks. Interestingly, adolescents also showed a link between real-world exploration and self-reported risk-taking behaviors. (Psychological Science, September 2022)

  • Why this is important
    This is the first study to link real-world exploration to positive well-being and risk-taking in adolescents, highlighting how important it is for teenagers to have opportunities to explore and try new things.

Environments & Brain Development

Got school on the brain: Favorable school environments associated with brain functioning in early adolescence.

Divyangana Rakesh and colleagues explored associations between how adolescents rated their school environment—based on factors such as availability of extracurricular activities, how supported and safe they feel, and their relationships with teachers—and brain development in more than 10,000 early adolescents, ages 9 to 10. School environment ratings were related to connectivity in higher-brain networks that are important for cognition and attention. The patterns of connectivity within these networks were associated with adolescent mental health. Factors including extracurricular activities and support of teachers showed the strongest associations with brain connectivity and positive mental health. (Biological Psychiatry, January 2023)

  • Why this is important
    This study highlights the importance of positive school environments (including having supportive teachers and available extracurricular programs) in adolescence by showing how a supportive school climate affects connectivity of brain networks, which in turn can contribute to positive mental health in young adolescents.

The importance of neighborhood safety for brain and cognitive function in adolescents

May Conley and colleagues examined the link between neighborhood threats, cognitive performance, and brain activity in more than 10,000 9- and 10-year-olds across the United States. Results showed that youth who reported high neighborhood threat or who reported high threat across the contexts of their neighborhood, family, and school performed worse on an emotional-cognitive task. (The task involved quickly indicating whether a neutral, happy, or fearful face matched a previously viewed image.)

In youth who reported high neighborhood threat, their low performance on the task was linked to lower activity in regions of the brain’s “executive network” that are important for cognition and self-control. This may be because in unsafe environments, the brain is working to assess potential threats, which makes it harder to perform well on cognitive tasks or engage in self-control. Results also suggested that the combination of neighborhood threats and less activity in the brain’s executive network contributes to risk for externalizing problems (negative feelings directed outward, such as aggression and delinquent behavior) in adolescence. (Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, January 2023)

  • Why this is important
    This study highlights the importance of ensuring safe neighborhoods to support healthy cognitive development and positive behaviors.


Choosing charity: Reward-related neural response and age-related increase in charitable donations in adolescence

Jochem Spaans and colleagues examined changes by age in donations to charity and in brain activity related to getting rewards for oneself or for a charity in a group of 10- to 22-year-olds. Participants played a digital game in which they saw gains for themselves or for a charity, and also decided whether to give to the charity or gain rewards for themselves. Older adolescents chose to donate to charity more often than younger adolescents and reported less enjoyment when receiving rewards overall. Across all participants, activity in the brain regions involved in processing rewards was higher when receiving rewards for self than for charity. However, this difference decreased with age–older participants’ brain activity was similar when receiving rewards for themselves as for charity, and was linked to their increase in charitable donations. (Journal of Research on Adolescence, November 2022)

  • Why this is important
    This study highlights the increase in charitable behavior as adolescents get older.

Putting the “pro” back in “prosocial”: The presence of a peer increases prosocial behavior in adolescents

In this study, Nicolette Sullivan and colleagues examined how 58 high school juniors and seniors responded to a digital game involving rewards that could benefit themselves, their friend, or both equally. When the adolescents were alone, they tended to allocate more money to themselves in the decision-making game. However, when their peer, a close friend, was present, adolescents were more likely to provide more rewards for that peer. Adolescents also responded more quickly to outcomes that benefited their friend when that friend was with them. This suggests that adolescents are sensitive to outcomes that benefit others in the presence of a peer, and this effect is linked to more prosocial behavior. (Scientific Reports, August 2022)

  • Why this is important
    This study suggests that during adolescence, the presence of a peer can promote positive, helping behaviors.

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