Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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The myth of adolescence
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When I went into the office yesterday Emily, the Centre’s great psychology researcher, handed me a sheaf of such fascinating articles that it has got me blogging again.
In the past few months I have written a book (due out on August 27th ) called Creating Confidence. It is mainly aimed at folk working with young people. I have also written another 90 page paper. So sitting down at the computer to write a blog has been the last thing I’ve felt like in the last few months.
However, the book is now finished and I find myself captivated by the ideas of Robert Epstein who has recently written a book called The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen - a book which is making a big splash in the US.
Epstein is a psychology writer who works mainly for Scientific American Mind. In this role he is more aware than most of the rising interest in what is being called ‘the teen brain’. This is resulting from various research projects (often based on brain imaging) which apparently show that teenagers brains are different from adult brains in a number of different ways. This is being used to show that teenagers are unable to assess risks well and that ‘bad decisions and risky behaviour may result from an immature prefrontal cortex, not just rebellion’.
Epstein is not just sceptical of such claims but downright critical. His is a complex argument I cannot do justice to it, so I’m just going to concentrate on the gist of some of his ideas.
Epstein argues that many research projects show that teenagers brains perform better than adults for a whole range of competences such as memory, perception and visual acuity. He also argues that this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Until recently, human beings (like mammals) bear their young shortly after puberty. If they were not capable of performing well (and this includes calculating risks and making good decisions) human beings would have been wiped out as a species.
What’s more evidence collected by anthropologists from 186 preindustrial societies shows that 60 per cent had no word for ‘adolescence’; in half there was no problematic behaviour in young males and in the other cultures any problems were extremely mild.
Epstein thinks it even more significant that long-term studies by anthropologists show that troubles with teenagers appears in cultures shortly after the introduction of ‘certain Western influences, especially Western-style schooling television programs and movies’. Historical studies also show that in earlier times adolescence was not a troubled time and such a phenomenon is not more than a century old.
Epstein argues forcefully that the problem in Western society is two things: we ‘infantalize’ teenagers by treating them as irresponsible and control and limit their behaviour. Secondly we trap them in ‘the frivolous world of peer culture’ which means ‘they learn virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the people they are about to become’.
So how do we explain the differences in adult and teen brains emerging in brain scans? Epstein argues that the way we treat young people is affecting their brains rather than their brains being the cause of the problem. He writes: ‘Considerable research shows that a person’s emotions and behaviours continuously change brain anatomy and brain physiology.’
Epstein suspects that much of the research being undertaken on the teen brain is being funded by drug companies as they could make a killing out of it. Want to reduce the risk of your teenage son doing something stupid – give them a pill which will influence the prefrontal cortex. Or about how some special training devised by psychologists?
In contemporary society it is becoming very common to see all problems as being psychological but they are often cultural. If we do not face up to this fact we may find that we make matters worse not better. The most immediate thing we can do for our young people is spend more time with them and give them more responsibility for their lives.
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