The End Of Teenagers? Part Two: Reflections On The UCL Conference On the Healthy Adolescent Brain

‘Adolescents’ seems a different concept from ‘teenagers’.  Most people associate teenagers with surly, inconsiderate and risky behaviours.  Adolescents on the other hand seems less negative, and especially when combined with the words ‘healthy’ and ‘development’.  It is a difference that is more than different adult attitudes to young people.

The new evidence coming from neuroscientists is that adolescents are still in the process of fundamental nervous system development (see  Jay Giedd’s (NIMH,  his work , his presentation on the adolescent brain and an 2012 paper on sex differences in the human brain).  Few people are up to date with these discoveries and their implication, but this is changing fast. Once they know, the response of most parents is to feel instinctively protective- and so we should feel that way.

This science requires adults to admit they got it wrong about adolescents- in many ways, teenagers are an adult myth. Many of their behaviours are exacerbated by brain development or caused by sleep deprivation imposed by the timing of educational establishments (see this blog’s posts on circadian rhythms).   Looked at in this perspective, the fundamental issue is how to protect adolescents, and what can we change in adult behaviour that will help protect them.

During the UCL event we discussed the issue of risk.  Given that adolescents are more prone to risky behaviours in part because of the nature of their brain development, what are the critical risks?  Here is  a good summary of risks that offers a starting point.  Go to this site and chose 14-19 Western Europe, and explore any of the other risk categories too:

Risk of death in adolescence in Western Europe

Looking at the risk of death in the 14-19 age range, the changes over time are generally positive, though a surprising number are due to potentially avoidable risks.  The improvement (over the last twenty years) is indicated in the % change column particularly in medical issues (Leukaemia, Congenital anomalies, and stroke dropping 40% or more).

Risk-related actions are improving too, except drug use disorders.  Yet 7- possibly 8- of the top 10 causes of death imply risky judgements (Road injury, self-harm, drug use disorders, drowning, interpersonal violence, transport injuries and falls).

Twenty years ago we didn’t know as much about healthy brain development in adolescence, and now we do it seems imperative to tackle risk taking in adolescence.  Of course we can continue to raise awareness,  yet we should go further, tackling the negative impact of school opening times being hour/s too early for adolescents, improving the crowded, noisy and stressful environments within schools, and building better systems to improve health by preventative programmes. Already our children feel under critical scrutiny by peers, teachers and even, at times, social media.  Direct support to de-stress childhood is needed.

Allied to this are the increasing use of drugs to control behaviour and mood in adolescence, when our knowledge of the onset of mental issues now makes clear that adolescence may be the critical period where many of these problems emerge. Recent research suggests that environment factors could be crucial in the emergence of mental health at this time resulting from sequences of environmental issues (Giovanoli et al, 2013) – more simply, the more environmental hits, the greater the risk.

There are many ways we can make adolescent life better, including accepting responsibility for adult behaviour to adolescents whether as parents, schools, organizations or government.  The blight caused by drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes is not beyond our control, sleep deprivation of adolescents is easily solved, reducing stress and improving physical health are achievable, and a relentless commitment to improving this stage in human life is critical in improving their lives and our society.

Besides, healthy adolescent brain development is good for everyone – even adults.