Let’s start with a quick experiment. When I say the word ‘teenager’ to you, what three words come to mind?
Recently researchers ran a similar experiment and found that many people associated very negative connotations to teenagers.
But are people confusing personality with biology? Could typical teenage behaviours be driven by changes to their brain during their adolescent years?
The Teenage Biology And Brain
"Teenagers are… lazy?"
Teenagers are often moaned at by their parents for going to bed late and not getting up in the morning.
However, recent research shows that melatonin, the hormone that makes humans feel sleepy, is often released later in the evening in teenagers than it is in adults. Given that teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep (in comparison to adults who only need 7-9 hours), it is perhaps not surprising that they are often knackered.
Therefore, adults should recognise that teenagers are not necessarily lazy, but are often simply tired.
"Teenagers are… risk takers?"
Teenagers are often criticised by adults for engaging in risky behaviours.
However, research shows that part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with risk-taking, is not fully developed in teenagers. The problem of risk-taking is heightened by teenagers’ desire to fit in and their susceptibility to peer pressure. In one study, teenagers were found to make much riskier and poorer decisions if one of their peers was with them.
"Teenagers are… less empathetic?"
Teenagers are often seen as being less empathetic. However, this may be down to their weakened ability to read other people’s emotions.
In one study, participants had to identify the emotion of someone else in a photo. They had to guess whether it was fear, shock or anger. Surprisingly, all adults were able to correctly identify fear, but only half the teenagers could. They may have struggled to correctly identify fear because the area of the brain used by adults for emotion processing is not fully developed in teenagers. Therefore, they have to rely on their limbic system for this, which is overly sensitive to emotion.
"Teenagers are… argumentative?"
Teenagers’ lack of self-control is particularly pronounced in heated situations, meaning they often argue with others. Research has shown that this is again caused by an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.
However, arguments between teenagers and others should not always be considered negative, as they can develop social skills and reduce negative behaviours. In a study of over 150 teenagers, it was found that teenagers who at age 13 had reasoned arguments with their parents were less likely to show drink or drug problems at age 16.
"Teenagers are... glued to their phones?"
Many teenagers seem to be glued to their phones, a problem which can cause increases in anxiety, frustration and impatience. Teenagers’ inability to leave their phones can be somewhat related to their biology.
Research shows that the teenage brain is hungry for stimulation, which a phone can provide. Therefore, teenagers need to be encouraged to partake in other simulating activities, such as playing a sport, or should be taught strategies to reduce phone use e.g. setting a themselves a time limit for phone use each day.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is hard, and the negative perceptions that are often associated with teenagers may make this more difficult.
If we understand that the structure of the teenage brain is different to that of adults and that they are very much a work in progress, then perhaps we may view some of their behaviours in a more charitable light.