In a comments thread, shorelines linked to a fascinating Scientific American article about adolescence by psychologist Robert Epstein. In it, he points to the invention of the very idea of adolescence and its non-universality. In a sample of 186 pre-industrial societies, for example, only 60% had words for the life stage and most had little or no problems with anti-social teen behavior. This data, however, contrasts strongly with new research suggesting that adolescent brains are quite different from adult brains.
How do we make sense of this?
Epstein suggests that differences in brain structure may be the result of social realities, not their cause. He writes:
I have not been able to find even a single study that establishes a causal relation between the properties of the brain being examined and the problems we see in teens… [Meanwhile, c]onsiderable research shows that a person’s emotions and behavior continuously change brain anatomy and physiology… So if teens are in turmoil, we will necessarily ﬁnd some corresponding chemical, electrical or anatomical properties in the brain. But did the brain cause the turmoil, or did the turmoil alter the brain? Or did some other factors—such as the way our culture treats its teens—cause both the turmoil and the corresponding brain properties.
By “the way our culture treats its teens,” Epstein is referring to the possibility that we infantilize and criminalize them. He includes a figure illustrating how we’ve increasingly targeted teens with laws:
Teens are subject to, Epstein explains, “…more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.”
Believing them to be different from adults, we then segregate them:
Today, with teens trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture, they learn virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the people they are about to become. Isolated from adults and wrongly treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult standards, recklessly or irresponsibly.
Epstein has no more data showing that how we treat teens, and how they learn to behave, changes their brain anatomy and physiology, than he does showing the reverse. But the former certainly has substantial neurological precedent. Meanwhile, the latter is comforting to a society awash in out-of-control adolescence: “What is there to do? It’s only natural.” Right?Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
QoB — March 7, 2011
Yup. That lazy/ignorant "brains show X, therefore X is immutable/biological/natural" drives me craaazy.
Lynne Skysong — March 7, 2011
Jeesh, from my experience, the more restrictions you place on a teenager, the more they try to break away from them and act "recklessly or irresponsibly." I'm not saying that there should be no restrictions, just not an excess compared to what you'd expect from someone 18+. My parents raised me to think for myself and exercise responsibility. If I wanted to stay up all night, that was my prerogative. (Usually the case was that I had a project due for school or a good book.) Which brings a question to mind... what facilities raising a responsible teenager? Too many rules and they'll rebel, but no restrictions and they'll likely not have the experience to make good decisions. I know I could've abused the freedom I had as a teenager (and I suppose a couple times I did, but who doesn't?), but I think the freedom helped me much more that super strict rules. (I had virtually no freedom from ~9-14 yrs because of a super strict step mom.)
Shinobi — March 7, 2011
I think the infantilization and dismissing of teenagers and their opinions and emotions is a serious problem. I vividly remember being repeatedly dismissed by my family. If I was upset or angry with them it was because I was "just being a teenager" not because I could possibly have any legitimate complaint. Which of course made me even more upset, angry, moody, reluctant to discuss my life with them, resentful of being treated like a child.
Scott — March 7, 2011
See, I had a ton of rules given by my parents, but there was a different side to that where they also promised to be consistent. They wouldn't enforce any rule they hadn't told me about beforehand. They'd listen to reasonable arguments for why they were being unfair, and as long as I agreed to abide by their decision, they would promote fair rule enforcement.
As far as American society and the regulations and rights of adolescent lives- I graduated from high school in 2005. At the time I was well aware that:
1) My freedom of speech was nonexistent. I could be punished for my beliefs, religious, political, or personal, and there was no appeals process.
2) I did not have the right to defend myself against an assault. If I was assaulted I was at fault for putting myself in a position to be assaulted. If I fought back, I was assaulting another.
3) There was a separate legal system for adolescents, where you could be searched on possible suspicion, where you were assumed to be up to no good, and where people could tell you to your face "You don't have a right to a lawyer." My principal in high school told me the last one. (I had done nothing wrong but was being accused of something I won't go into here.)
4) I did not have the right to be outside after 10pm. I didn't know this until I turned 17 and a cop threatened me outside my house. This was likely because I was hanging out with my Mexican friend and we were being profiled.
5) I did not have the right to privacy or the right to hold property. Anything I had, even if it was given to me by my parents, could be taken away, if those in power thought it was reasonable.
6) The laws concerning adolescents are specially crafted such that they're treated like property. Courts generally cast it in "what's best for the child", but the rulings more or less settle custody/liability for the actions of minors as disputes in property rather than the real settlement of the future of a child.
7) When given a choice between the legal system of the adult world and the legal system of the juvenile world, prosecutors will use the one that punishes the most and the judge usually follows.
AlgebraAB — March 7, 2011
1. Can you elaborate on the types of laws Dr. Epstein is referring to when he writes about the criminalization of teen behavior? He's throwing out a weighty statistical comparison ("more than 10 times ... mainstream adults") but he doesn't give any examples of the specific laws he's referring to. I'll admit I'm a bit skeptical whenever someone throws out a statistic like that, which is incredibly hard to verify unless you do an extremely broad survey of federal law. Is he including any law that technically applies to teens? What of family law-related statutes? What of statutes specifically related to juvenile courts? There are a whole lot of laws that are targeted at minors but are meant to protect them, not restrict them, and I'm wondering if he's including those.
2. Follow-up: is the phenomenon of criminalizing teen behavior common at all outside of the United States? If similar laws do exist, are they enforced to any significant degree (especially in Third World nations where police presence is often minimal)? And, if the answer to those questions is no, do we see differences in brain activity between kids in the U.S. and in countries with a much more lax legal atmosphere re: teens?
3. Nowhere in his essay does Dr. Epstein argue that adolescence was "invented." First of all, just because a word doesn't exist in the language does not mean that a correlated concept doesn't exist in said society. It doesn't take a leap in imagination to determine that some cultures might refer to what we call "adolescence" as simply "youth" or some such similar word. I don't want to get into a linguistic argument but using a rather novel, Western word in order to determine the social development of a completely different culture is completely ridden with problems from head to toe. Secondly, I plain don't see any argument in his paper that argues that adolescence was invented. I think you have to play semantics to arrive at that conclusion. What he is doing is arguing against a particular type of adolescence, a Western one which takes for granted an anti-social attitude, and in favor of another type of adolescence, a pre-industrial one that involves close relations between teens and adults.
Let me emphasize that just because adults and teens are living and working in mixed-generational social groups in these pre-industrial societies does NOT mean they are doing so as equals. I'm not sure why people are making that huge logical jump. I would be willing to wager that in almost all of these pre-industrial societies, the teen is considered a social subordinate in said relationships.
4. What of social context? Even if it is true that there are more legal restrictions on teens in our societies than in pre-industrial societies, how did he come to the conclusion that this is the variable that is driving "out of control" behavior? Correlation does not indicate causation. What about changes in diets? What about the increased amount of media we consume and sensory stimuli we face (video games, internet, etc)? What about parental roles - have those changed? Social structures - how is education different? How do teens find mates? There are so many radical differences between industrial and pre-industrial societies that it seems like Dr. Epstein is taking a stab in the dark here since he seems to have not considered any other possibilities from a social perspective.
DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Adolescent Brains: Cause or Consequence? — March 7, 2011
[...] Read it. In a comments thread, shorelines linked to a fascinating Scientific American article about adolescence by psychologist Robert Epstein. In it, he points to the invention of the very idea of adolescence and its non-universality. In a sample of 186 pre-industrial societies, for example, only 60% had words for the life stage and most had little or no problems with anti-social teen behavior. This data, however, contrasts strongly with new research suggesting that adolescent brains are quite different from adult brains. [...]
Violet — March 7, 2011
“I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting" William Shakespeare
Anonymous — March 7, 2011
Does it really take a PhD to figure this out? I experienced turmoil when I was a teen. It didn't go away either. No adults listened to me, all my peers hated me. The only way I could make friends and defend myself from the onslaught of bullying (again, by adults, even teachers, and peers) was to stop listening to all of them and do whatever I wanted. Parents didn't listen, and when they asked, they always faulted me automatically, as if I were the cause of every problem I encountered. I could write books full of the insane shit that I had to deal with as a teenager and am only now, at 30, coming to fully understand. Here's a tip on how to deal with teenagers: TREAT THEM LIKE A HUMAN BEING. Dignity. Respect. Courtesy. Those things go a long way in NOT making people of any age feel totally worthless.
Richard — March 7, 2011
There are so many schools of thought on this, that the discussion and disagreement from behaviorist vs constructivist vs humanist vs psychoanalytic etc. goes on ad nauseum. Theories and theorists are a dime a dozen, and while are there some keen observations here and there (and some consistent universal truths to glean) it all seems to go in circles very quickly. I love the biblical perspective on this though, because if you follow it to its logical conclusion it seems to put the "knowledge of this world" in its rightful place. 1 Corinthians 13:11 says "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." And while that might leave many of the "nurture" samplers from the "nature vs nurture" buffet scratching their heads, I honestly think they missed the boat on this one. Its not the chicken or the egg. This is more about biology (the above article) and social psychology (self-fulfilling prophecy, e.g. expectations placed, or not placed, on the young person) than it is about linear human development or cultural paradigms. As for the behaviorists? There is no shortage of 5-10 year-olds trying to behave like 15-20 years olds, and I'm sure we've all come across our fair share of older folk who behave like adolescents. So although the latter makes some good and useful observations, I'll take Paul over Piaget any day.
Kelly — March 7, 2011
Institutionalization, adultist oppression, lack of basic human rights, and by-rote segregation starts with children very, very young and is quite mainstream - and yes, it reaps many problems. If anyone here is interested in what teenage life looks like for those who had a different upbringing than the mainstream, Idzie Desmarais has a great collection - just to get started.
Dr. Robert Epstein — March 8, 2011
For more up-to-date information about the teen brain myth, please see my new book, Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. Order through http://Teen20.com. /re
Basiorana — March 8, 2011
I think the trouble with this argument is that the societies are completely different. A teen in a preindustrial society who is treated as an adult will work on a parent's farm, or live very nearby; will know all the neighbors and have supervision; will be able to ask for help with ease; and will be taken care of if they make a mistake-- they are unlikely to make a mistake that costs them too much.
Whereas in this society, a teen who was treated like an adult would be expected to live completely independently from their parents. They would work for an employer who did not know or care about them. Their neighbors would not know them or care particularly; there would be few places to turn if they needed help; and their mistakes are less "planted a bad crop one year and had to borrow food from neighbors" and more "bankrupt or in jail because they did not understand the complicated financial system and no one offered to help walk them through it."
Considering how much preindustrial societies take care of their own (especially considering that teens are not really equals in those societies, just doing adult labor), and how little our society does, it's inevitable that we would see the need to keep them at home longer and protect them more, and inevitable that they would chafe against the protection. Considering the size of our society, we could probably change the nature of the protection but it's unlikely we could return to a preindustrial method of raising teenagers without disastrous results.
Grizzly — March 8, 2011
Are we really a society "awash in out of control adolescence"? Do statistics support that supposition? It seems to me to be a very common meme throughout history that the generation currently 'in charge' feels that the youth they are responsible for are out of control.
Frowner — March 8, 2011
I feel like this isn't the most useful way to look at the situation of teens, because it tends to polarize into "the teenage brain is always teenage across cultures and histories!" and "teenagers just need to be treated like adults!" This is particularly true because there really isn't great neurological data available across populations (ie, human subjects concerns and funding limits probably preclude going to peasant and tribal societies and imaging lots of adolescent brains for comparison.)This seems to be one of the problems with a neurological approach to behavioral issues--one-sided data with little possibility of obtaining good control material.
I think it's possible to map real changed in lived adolescent experience across time and culture --
*in affluent countries lived adolescence starts earlier (tweens and twenty-somethings) than in most of the past;
*adolescents have responsibilities that are dramatically different from adult ones rather than adult-like responsibilities such as working in a family business, factory, brothel, or apprenticeship or getting married;
*adolescents are much more age-segregated than in the past, which (per Franco Moretti) is a function of the standardization of schooling (ie, not only are you in school with other young folks, you're in school only with people very close to you in age, such that numberically small age differences (ZOMG, he's in seventh grade!) are culturally very large.
*over time, government has become more and more concerned with the legal regulation of youth, and youth is often figured in media as without empathy, without self-control, without judgment, without mercy...etc etc. It's not just "oh, those medieval apprentices sure get up to some rowdy hijinks!" anymore.
How are all these things affected by industrialization, urbanization, labor discipline, etc etc?
gre'nichgrendel — March 8, 2011
Hmm...my understanding- and I could be completely wrong here- is that the major difference in adult and adolescent brain structure is a relative lack of development of the pre-frontal cortex. Maybe there are more I'm not aware of, as far that portion of the brain is concerned the (overly)simplified version of it's function is executive decision making. Given that environment and experience do indeed shape neural structure, I suppose it could be possible that an adolescent faced with more critical and adult-type decisions might develop that area more quickly. But since I have no information on WHAT the difference is in brain structure that is referred to, I'm not at all sure that that's what's being talked about or compared. However, IF that's the case than ADHD, which is, structurally at least, a result of delayed or abnormal development of key brain structures (based on the MRI studies of the last few years) could very well be a response to an environmental or experience factor. Which is a fun idea to play with, though I would say that it's one of those disorders that is a result of multiple factors. In my personal experience, adolescence is hell precisely because you don't receive basic human respect from the majority of adults.
Jennifer — March 9, 2011
What about Teicher and Van der Kolk?
From the Link Cellar This Week | Neurodiversity — March 14, 2011
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Robert Epstein — March 20, 2011
These issues are explored a great detail in my 2010 book, Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. See:
Shelby — March 22, 2011
I'm an only child who was raised around childless aunts and uncles. I learned how to interact with adults. It was a shock to me spending time with my boyfriend or whomever because they spent holidays at the kids' table well into their teens, and thus they don't have practice having an adult conversation. Kids shouldn't be separated as much as they are in sitcoms.
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