Teens: Are Their Brains to Blame?

4/3/2017 6:00:00 AM

Teenagers! They’re impulsive. Aggressive. Engage in risky behavior and just don’t know what’s best for them.  And there’s research now that gives a reason for it too.  It’s that their brains are not capable of making reasonable decisions. You know.  It’s their frontal lobes that are not fully developed and that’s why they act the way they do.

Or is it?

In a public radio interview (listen here) Dr. Robert Epstein, Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, asks adults to consider who might gain from pathologizing teenage behavior?

For one industry doing so has resulted in multi-billion dollar profits off of popularizing this belief.  

Pharmaceuticals.

Epstein shared that we are now giving more psychoactive drugs to our teens than all other prescription medications combined, including acne medication and antibiotics.

But the teen brain is different right? Epstein says yes, of course it is different. Our brains change throughout our lives to adapt to what we need at the time of development. For example, most forms of memory and intelligence actually peak between ages 13 and 15. After our 20s or 30s, our cognitive abilities decline for the rest of our lives. Brain size follows the same pattern, peaking at age 14. By the time we’re 70 (the age of supreme court justices and our president), the brain has shrunk to the size it was when we were between 2 and 3 years old.

While it is true that the teen brain has different features than the adult brain, in his article in Scientific American Epstein reminds us that correlation does not equal causation. In fact there is not a single study that establishes a causal relation between the properties of the brain being examined and the problems we see in teens. In the article, The Myth of the Teen Brain, we learn that the myths about the teen brain being the cause of moody and naturally depressed teens are simply inaccurate. To prove this Epstein studied other cultures around the world and found that turmoil isn’t present in many other cultures. In fact there are many cultures that don’t even have a word for adolescence. Epstein says this turmoil isn’t natural or inevitable.

That is good news. Once we scratch beneath the research and dig into the real information out there, we can take lessons from history, science, and from other cultures. This enables us to “address” the underlying issues rather than treat the symptoms with medication.  

Epstein makes a compelling case about a primary issue being the infantilization of youth. Young people are ready and capable of doing more than sitting at a school desk for days on end listening to lectures and answering questions processed through textbooks... even if those books happen to be digital.

Epstein expands on the idea John Taylor Gatto brought to light in his book, The Underground History of American Education. In it he revealed how America child labor laws were extended to cover more and more kinds of work, and how school was made as the only avenue to certain occupations. The intention was ultimately to draw all work into the school net. This happened for a variety of reasons. For example, whereas historically young people worked with adults, after the Great Depression labor unions fought to keep teens out of the workforce to combat the high unemployment rates (27%) and provide jobs to help Americanize the large immigrant population.

Epstein points out that “the dramatic changes set in motion by the turmoil of America’s industrial revolution also obliterated from modern consciousness the true abilities of young people, leaving adults with the faulty belief that teenagers were inherently irresponsible and incompetent. What’s more, the rate at which restrictions were placed on young people began to accelerate after the 1930s, and increased dramatically after the social turmoil of the 1960s.” Epstein’s research shows that teenagers today are subject to 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, to twice as many restrictions as are active-duty U.S. Marines, and even to twice as many restrictions as are incarcerated felons.

The answer is in giving young people more responsibility and opportunity to interact with adults.  Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is familiar with Epstein’s work and applies his research in her current role. She explains that if we trust our youth with the inevitable responsibilities of modern life sooner rather than later, we can reinvigorate our society.  One way she has addressed this is by creating a youth council giving students a say in issues that are important to them.  


School models like Big Picture Learning are fueled by this message.  At these schools students are out in the world learning with adults who are pursuing careers they find interesting.  Epstein approves.  His research suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. He says the assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is invalidated when looking at anthropological research from around the world. He explains there is a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

Brewer puts it this way.  “Dr. Epstein shows not how much we lose by belittling teens, but also how much we stand to gain by empowering them.”

Epstein’s conclusion?

The social-emotional turmoil experienced by many young people in the United States is entirely a creation of modern culture. Teens are trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture and learn virtually everything they know from one another. We produce turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis using technology. Epstein says that almost without exception, the reckless and irresponsible behavior we see is the teen’s way of declaring his or her adulthood. They are wrongly treated like children when in fact teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults.

Epstein says there is hope. He shares that we know from extensive research that when we treat teens like adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge. He suggests we replace the myth of the immature teen brain with a frank look at capable and savvy teens in history, at teens in other cultures and at the truly extraordinary potential of our own young people today.

How do we do that?

Epstein says that teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. Here are three ideas for accomplishing that.

  1. Learning outside of school
    Provide school models like Big Picture Learning where founder Elliot Washor explains, in his bookLeaving to Learn,” students are interacting with adults in their world.
  2. Serving the community
    Provide opportunities to serve their community like Gale Brewer has put in practice with youth councils.
  3. Not allowing school to rob families of time together
    Recognize the problem with homework. Education expert Gary Stager explains that there is no reason for children to work a second unpaid shift when returning home from school objecting to the imposition of homework into what might otherwise be domestic tranquility. That domestic tranquility is the crucial time that Epstein points out is so important for adults to use to spend precious time with their children.  

The teen brain is indeed different, but the way to address this is not necessarily in the ways we’ve been led to believe by the pharma companies and mainstream press. These differences need to be embraced, not medicated. There are several ways parents and educators can address this. Which will you consider embracing with the teens in your life?

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

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