Money and Justin Bieber’s teenage brain

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

Story highlights

Peggy Drexler: There are teenagers like Justin Bieber on every block

Drexler: A young person who has so much money -- and power -- can do crazy things

She says parents can instill values, but it's hard when a kid is the breadwinner

Drexler: Still, there are teen stars who grow up fine even if they have a lot of money

CNN  — 

Cyndi Lauper had a hit in the 1980s called “Money Changes Everything.” She has a point. It may or may not buy happiness, but money – especially truckloads of it – does change things, including endowing the holder of the checkbook with power.

Now, take a teenager and give him that power. What happens?

Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan and the other teen stars that have crashed to earth in a shower of tabloid sparks, may only be doing what a great many teenagers would be doing – if they could.

Peggy Drexler

There are teenagers like Justin Bieber on every block. But imagine the kid who cuts your lawn suddenly having a net worth of about $130 million.

The same teen brain that convinces its host that he won’t get caught if he throws a party at the house while mom and dad are away now knows it owns the house – and it’s a mansion, with Lamborghinis outside loaned gratis by a friendly dealer. Woohoo!

It’s long been said that by age 5 or 6, a child’s brain is 95% of its adult size. But neuroscientists, enlightened by MRI technology, are discovering it is still changing – creating connections, adding and shedding cells. That process is particularly active in the prefrontal cortex – the part that makes judgments like drag racing through residential neighborhoods.

Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, led studies that found the teen brain development was a process of adding and pruning. Significantly, he said, brain cells at that age are influenced by what the teen does. If he plays sports, the brain cells will make connections that help with that. If he sits on the couch and plays video games, then the cells will be hardwired for those activities.

The only real moderating influence – as it is for any teenager – is the parents. But instilling discipline and values can be a daunting exercise when the child is the breadwinner. It can be difficult to tell your child they can’t have the car tonight – when he’s the one who paid for it.

Some parents – like the Lohans – are simply not up to the job. Others – like the parents of Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes – may have had their job complicated by what appear to be mental problems. Unfortunately, today, those problems are there for all to see. Every failure of a troubled celebrity teen spreads like digital wildfire.

Still, for every Justin Bieber, there is a Ron Howard, Natalie Portman or Jodie Foster – child stars who navigated the rocky shoals of teen years into successful adulthood. Actor Rance Howard, in an interview, said he raised well-adjusted child star sons, Clint and Academy-award winning Ron, by removing their money from the family’s life. “We chose not to live on what the boys could afford,” he said, “but what I could afford.”

Let’s hope Justin will find his way. But romping in a mountain of money like most kids play in a pile of leaves, and surrounded by an entourage of dependent cheerleaders, won’t make it easy. As the developing cells of his teenage brain react to the world around him – money does change everything.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.