"The Latest Assault on Teens: It's Their Brains"
Despite recent claims, there's no reason to
think teens think differently than adults
By MIKE MALES
cLos Angeles Times, Sunday Opinion, February 17, 2002, p M3
SANTA CRUZ—Neurobiologist Richard Restak’s new book, The Secret Life of the Brain, which was serialized by PBS, is one of many recent works crediting neuroscience with confirming popular stereotypes of teenagers as rash and unthinking. PBS’ promo for “The Teenage Brain” segment read: “As the brain begins teeming with hormones, the prefrontal cortex, the center of reasoning and impulse control, is still a work in progress. For the first time, scientists can offer an explanation for what parents already know—adolescence is a time of roiling emotions, and poor judgment.”
Restak invites readers to choose their own adjectives—all negative—to describe adolescents: “difficult,” “unpredictable,” “moody.” Only when they reach adulthood, “the culmination of human brain development,” do young people become “mature,” “likable” and “courteous,” he adds. Other experts say teens suffer “biological tumult,” “impulsiveness” and “disregard for consequences.”
Such claims should be greeted with caution. Theories founded in “biological determinism”—that the behaviors of certain human populations result from innate limitations in their intelligence and reasoning capacities—inevitably win initial praise. Then research dismantles the theories, often after they have inspired harmful policies.
Today’s authoritative-sounding statements about adolescents are similar to those eminent scientists once confidently issued regarding the supposedly flawed cerebrums of women and “inferior races,” as Harvard University scientist Stephen Jay Gould writes in The Mismeasure of Man. Researchers a century ago asserted that African Americans’ “less developed posterior lobe” explained their supposed impulsivity, irrationality and violent behavior. Women’s underdeveloped brains, wrote psychologist and sociologist Gustav Le Bon, produced “fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.” America’s preeminent early-1900s psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, argued that “savage” races, biologically, are “adolescents.” Today’s scientists reverse the sentence: Adolescents, biologically, are savages.
Modern science is more sophisticated, but skepticism of its misuse to uphold popular stereotype and official need remains. Youth have been a favorite target. A 1987 University of Wisconsin analysis of scientific theories on teen behavior published in decades of journal articles found strong evidence of “ideological purpose.” When politicians and business interests need more youths for wars and employment booms, scientists pronounce adolescents “capable and adult-like” ; during peacetime and economic downturns, adolescents are “psychologically incapacitated immature and slow to develop.” The latest discovery of adolescent biological deficiency follows a decade of blaming youths for every social ill.
To test a theory, compare what it predicts to real life. Decades of psychological studies have exposed common typecasts of teens as a “stubborn, fixed set of falsehoods,” concluded University of Michigan psychologist Joseph B. Adelson. In truth, “adolescents are not in turmoil, not deeply disturbed, not at the mercy of their impulses, not resistant to parental values and not rebellious.” UC San Francisco medical-psychologist Nancy Adler’s testing similarly found that “adolescents are no less rational than adults.” A Carnegie Mellon University team reviewed 100 scholarly studies and reported the “perception of relative invulnerability was no more pronounced for adolescents than for adults.”
Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer’s studies of 30,000 youths spanning three decades found virtually “no support for adolescent turmoil” theories or hormonal debilities. Repeated surveys show only 10% to 15% of teens report dissatisfaction with themselves, their lives or their relationship with parents. “Decision-making for teenagers is no different than decision-making for adults,” Offer concluded in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. A typical research review in the journal Child Development reported that “minors aged 14 were found to demonstrate a level of competency equivalent to that of adults” in standard measures of reasoning.
The similarity of teenage and adult thinking is further shown by crime and health statistics. If teen brains are inherently flawed, we would expect teenagers to engage in far riskier behavior than adults. This is not the case, however. Compared with adults, teenagers have higher rates of water-sports and traffic accidents but lower rates of other major mishaps like falls, drug and alcohol overdoses, drunken driving and suicides. The risks of teens committing a crime, contracting HIV/AIDS or becoming pregnant out of wedlock vary radically by socioeconomic status and typically parallel those of adults of their cultures, not teens of other cultures. “Our youth are no healthier or sicker than we, their parents,” Offer concluded.
When asked to speculate on the mental health of average teenagers, physicians and therapists tend to vastly overestimate adolescents’ pathology. A multi-university team reported that scientists and adults, in general, erroneously “believe adolescent problems are more attributable to ‘developmental stage’ than problems of older age groups.” That is, when a 16-year-old drives drunk or shoots up at school, we blame generic teenage recklessness; when a 40-year-old drives drunk or shoots up an office, we view him as a disturbed individual.
Despite its dubious validity, the stigma of biological inferiority allows varied interests both to abrogate teen rights and impose harsh punishment on them. Liberal lobbies such as Amnesty International and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice defend trying youths in juvenile rather than adult court on the ground of youths’ supposed developmental incompetence; yet they ignore data showing that juvenile-court judges sentence teens to longer terms than similarly offending adults. Conservatives cite adolescent immaturity to justify zero-tolerance and abstinence-only, far more demanding standards than adults face.
Deploring “unsubstantiated claims about the incompetence of adolescents,” Carnegie Mellon researchers suggest reversing the lens and scrutinizing adults’ “cognitive and motivational factors that promote this harsh view of adolescents.” Could generic flaws in grown-up thinking explain the reckless compulsion of authorities who hurl simplistic stereotypes at powerless groups, the servile conformity of experts who cloak them in science and the smugness of the rest of us who swallow them?
Mike Males is a Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and sociologist at UC Santa Cruz.
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