Post No.: 0142
Adolescent brains take many years to develop and mature. The duration of adolescence is currently disputed amongst scientists – it certainly starts when an individual starts puberty, but when it ends has no universal consensus because the rate of development just gradually tails off and blends into adulthood.
Puberty tends to start earlier as the health and nutrition of a country improves (which can be a problem at a certain point, when obesity affects the onset of puberty, particularly for females with the current data, who will more likely experience menarche (their first menstruation) earlier if they’re obese). Currently and on average, in the ‘developed’ world, puberty starts at around the age of 11-12. It tends to start earlier for girls than boys in general. And based on data like serious motor vehicle accidents, the effects of psychoactive drugs on brains and the appearance of wisdom teeth – I’m personally inclined to put the average age that adolescence effectively ends at ~25 years old. Of course these are the averages and individuals can vary greatly, and it’s not to say that furry adolescents shouldn’t have any responsibilities, empowerment, goals and the like just because they’re not technically adults yet.
The adolescent brain generally develops from the back to the front, with the more evolutionarily-ancient areas associated with seeking pleasure and reward developing first (the subcortical limbic system) and the areas associated with controlling impulses and emotions developing last (the prefrontal cortex) at around a person’s mid-20s. So the prefrontal cortex, which is used to maintain goal-directed behaviours, is the last part of the brain to develop, and this tends to lead to the impulsive and risky behaviours and more intense and fluctuating emotions/moods we often see in adolescents. This neurological perspective therefore explains a lot of typical traits in adolescents – indeed, a neurological perspective could, logically, help explain all types of behaviours. It has also been shown that people’s frontal lobes shrink as they age too, which possibly helps to explain why old people tend to seem relatively more bigoted and have fewer inhibitions according to some theories? (But again that would be on average and individuals can very enormously.) So this area of the brain seems to be the last to develop and one of the first to deteriorate.
Adolescents, due to these major brain changes as a result of the onset of puberty – suddenly become more image conscious, being popular matters more to them, they’re seeking to find their personal identities and belonging, their sleeping pattern is naturally phase-shifted to slightly later (they need ~9 hours of sleep per night and they tend to can’t help but want to sleep later and get up later), they naturally seek to eat more high-calorie foods to fuel their growth spurts, they start to think a lot about sex, and risk-taking behaviours increase for having a reduced impulse control and ability to think about the consequences of their actions, which goes back to their prefrontal cortex brain development.
The age of 18 or 21 has no biological significance, although ages must be agreed for certain laws to function in a practical sense. And the term ‘teenagers’ (i.e. 13-19) is only based arbitrarily on how the numbers of these ages are written in the English language, hence I try to avoid using this term if I can remember. Growing out of adolescence is completely gradual and there’s no objective biological endpoint to adolescence hence some scientists even argue that it never really technically ends. One proposed biological state is when the prefrontal cortex stops developing, but even this state is not clearly defined (some even argue that some people never fully develop their prefrontal cortices within their own lifetimes).
Well certainly it’s naïve to think that a person suddenly becomes all-knowing of everything that one needs to know as an adult and becomes a responsible citizen once they hit any chronological age, including knowing or doing what’s good or bad for them e.g. reaching one’s 18th birthday and then somehow suddenly becoming a responsible consumer of alcohol, as if some software upgrade gets installed on that date(!) We’re only biologically one day older than yesterday! So it’s not really about one’s chronological age but one’s personal ‘intellectual’ or ‘impulse control’ age, but this is hard to determine on a case-by-case basis – so to keep law enforcement simpler, we’ve got to pick chronological ages that apply to everyone in a country regardless of people’s individual rates of development (e.g. some 21-year old people are considered more ‘mature’ than others, yet in certain traits and not others too). Now most adolescents (like other people in general) will believe they’re personally above average for their age – but that’s just the ‘above-average effect’ in action (see Post No.: 0073)!
Adolescents experience pleasure more intensely than at other times in their lives, hence why they seek pleasure experiences more. Peer pressure and conformity is important to them too (although the peer pressure to copy and conform starts much younger). They tend to know what is risky behaviour but will do risky things when in front of their peers (this creates an escalatory effect though, as peers explicitly or implicitly egg on or encourage each other to do riskier and ever riskier things). They are more self-conscious than ever too, which is amplified in a culture of touched-up photographs, selfies and social media. It’s due to major biological brain changes happening during this developmental stage, along with bi-directional feedback effects with the prevailing culture.
Puberty and everything associated with it obviously ultimately evolved to get organisms to want to reproduce and start the next generation. (Puberty starting earlier as nutrition improves therefore makes sense – the body is possibly saying ‘there seems to be no problem securing food so it’s a good time to get on with reproduction’.) But faced with a very different environment to the one this evolution predominantly took place, it can be tough for modern day adolescents.
Now electronic devices and social media have their pros and cons – they can connect people with others whom one wouldn’t have otherwise and they can mean less time partaking in riskier activities such as smoking or drinking. But the opportunity costs for spending too much time on them are fewer face-to-face interactions, unnecessary sleep interruptions if they’re used too close to bedtime, and less time partaking in other beneficial activities such as physically active activities, for instance. It’s arguably not about denying children electronic devices and social media but educating them first about security, safety, usage balance, the marketing and other tricks used by firms, the messages portrayed and perpetuated by others that may impact on their mental health, and so forth, rather than just giving them electronic devices and hoping to get lucky. Besides, banning or overly restricting things will (predictably) make those things more desirable, for adolescents in particular because of their increased risk-taking and rebellious attitudes.
Not that this means one should therefore over-simplistically give them whatever they want. (Who said parenting is straightforward?!) It’s about education, constant communication and involvement in what your children are up to (somehow balancing respecting their privacy with not being totally oblivious to their activities), and helping them to do the things you want them to do in a more supportive, encouraging and rewarding manner rather than in a forceful or conversely empty way (e.g. merely nagging them to go outside more rather than going on more active family outings together or another reason to get them outside).
So explain and enforce the house rules (e.g. no phones at the dinner table), make use of tools that limit their time on these devices and the types of content they can access, teach them about the risks of uploading (their own or anyone else’s) private information and images, teach them to think before clicking on something or believing in it, and talk through what they may find on the web (e.g. that the world isn’t all that bad despite the news generally always leading with whatever’s bleeding).
Adolescents, in general, suddenly finding it uncool to hang around with their parents may be a timed biological program to get adolescents to want to leave the nest and start their own family. The antagonism and ‘coldness’ is usually temporary though and their relationship with their parents will normally eventually warm again (possibly again as a timed biological program to get grandparents to help with looking after their new fluffy grandchildren?!)
Synaptic pruning in the brain is still occurring at a fair rate during adolescence – strengthening the neuronal connections that are most used and pruning away those that are least used. But although most of the dramatic brain changes are complete by around the age of 25 – radical changes are still possible during adulthood e.g. learning ‘The Knowledge’ (London taxi routes) or how to play a new musical instrument will produce large physical changes in the brain at any age. Well really, one can learn anything new as long as one repeats the task and persists with it for long enough, and over time this will result in radical changes in the brain.
This also means that repeated knocks to the brain, concussions, psychoactive/psychotropic drugs, what we eat, brain tumours, certain diseases, ageing and simply any experience, particularly traumatic or chronic ones, will physically alter the brain in some way (and therefore potentially our personalities, who we are and our perceptions of reality) too. Some things are more difficult to change than other things (e.g. destroying is easier than building) but the brain remains ‘plastic’ (changeable, with such changes able to stick), although progressively less so with age. Our ‘identities’ therefore aren’t fixed but are essentially constantly changing as long as we’re alive.
Woof. If you are a parent with an adolescent or soon-to-be-adolescent child, it’d be wise to remember what you were like and what you wanted when you were that age, and be understanding (although that might be precisely why you don’t want your children to do or be the same?(!)) And remember that undergoing puberty is not a choice, nor a surprise – it’s genetically predetermined so account for it!