© Heide Benser/Corbis
Teenagers often get a bad press. There are easy stories to be mined here: ASBOs, underage drinking, “hug a hoodie,” drug use—even, recently, the teenager who drugged her parents to access the internet.
These are not new stereotypes. As a shepherd in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale puts it, “I would there were no age between 10 and three-and-20, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” Change the syntax, and this description could easily fit in many newspapers today.
Are the stereotypes fair? Is the idea of wild adolescence rooted in evidence? There are two sorts of arguments. On the one hand, neuroscientific evidence seems increasingly to suggest that this is a true developmental phase of its own—teenagers behave differently because their brains are different. On the other, some argue that teenagers behave differently because they are learning to handle so many new situations, and if we hold stereotypical ideas about their behaviour, we risk underestimating them.
Take the latter argument first. Philip Graham, a professor of psychiatry who has written extensively on what he perceives to be a misconception, believes that although hormonal and physical changes are occurring, most teenagers are not risky or moody. Graham sees teenagers as a stigmatised group, often highly competent yet treated as if they were not. He argues that teenagers need to be acknowledged as potentially productive members of society and that the more independence and respect they are given, the more they will rise to the challenge.
“Once young people reach the age of 14, their competence in cognitive tasks and their sexual maturity make it more helpful to think of them as young adults,” says Graham. “Media coverage is almost uniformly negative. Adolescence is a word used to describe undesirable behaviour in older adults. Young people of 14, 15 or 16 are thought to be risk-takers… they are people who are experimenting. They are doing things for the first time and they make mistakes. Would you call a toddler who is learning to walk and who falls over all the time a risk-taker? These people are just beginning something.”
Graham places less importance on the conclusions of research into risk-taking and on adolescent brain changes—“Not to say there are not a…