Psychologist logo
Children, young people and families

Teenagers debunked

A transcript of 'The Psychologist presents…' at Latitude Festival, supported by the Wellcome Trust. The discussion was chaired by our editor Dr Jon Sutton, and featured Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Fiona Neill.

23 July 2015

Compere: Please welcome Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Fiona Neill, chaired by Dr Jon Sutton!

JS: Hi all, I'm Dr Jon Sutton, I'm a regular here at Latitude but this is the first time The Psychologist has done anything like this, so very pleased to be here and to see so many of you. With the help of Latitude's Tania Harrison we've put together a session with two fantastic people: Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and she's spent much of her life researching teenagers and their brains. And we have author Fiona Neill, whose most recent book has been described as 'a thought-provoking and cautionary coming of age tale'.

Maybe you are here to have your teenagers thoroughly debunked; maybe you have children coming up to those teenage years and you are interested in what lies in store for them, and for you. I have my own children down the front here – I call them my sunshine… because they cause premature ageing.

So we'll give you some of the science of the journey they are on, because we have two expert guides individually, but together they are even more impressive, because Fiona actually consulted Sarah-Jayne in the writing of her recent book, and there is a character in it who bears a striking resemblance to Sarah-Jayne. The book is shot through with research, so today we should have two different perspectives on a very interesting topic.

I'd like to take the back seat now, hand the wheel to these two. But to start, given that we're in the Literary Arena, I have a quote from Shakespeare: 'I would that there were no age between sixteen and three and twenty, 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.' So the question I'd like to put to Fiona first, is whether being young is changing. Do modern teenagers face particular challenges, or are we actually dealing with age-old concerns?

FN: I think that many of the concerns that teenagers deal with now are the same as the concerns that we dealt with when we were teenagers, but the really big difference is technology. While we all had our cock ups in private, the unfortunate thing about the internet is that it is very good at remembering, very bad at forgetting. When things go wrong, they go wrong in a far more public way than they did when we were younger.

JS: Sarah-Jayne, have you noticed the teenagers you research with changing, in terms of the challenges they face?

SJB: I think one thing that we adults think is 'oh, we weren't really like that when we were teenagers'; 'our teenagers do crazy things, they are influenced by their peers, they make really bad decisions, they take risks, we weren't like that'. Actually we were. I'm not going to tell anyone this apart from you guys, I made a promise to myself… I found my teenage diaries the other day in my parents' loft. I was pretty shocked at how abysmal they were, how completely shallow and superficial. I thought I was different when I was a teenager, but I was doing what all teenagers do and what is really important for teenagers to do – becoming more independent from your family and your parents, and affiliating with your peer group, your friends. They're the people you're going to be with for the rest of your life, the people the same age as you.

There's lots of research in neuroscience and psychology showing why that is in the brain, the biological basis of this. Teenagers are particularly compelled to affiliate with their peers, and particularly worried about being excluded. Think about typical teenage decisions, like putting a video online, or smoking, drinking, taking drugs, normally when they make these decisions it's not when they're on their own, it's when they're with friends, and there's a good reason for that. I think that's something that absolutely hasn't changed throughout the ages – further back than Shakespeare, to Plato and Aristotle, all talked about teenage behaviour.

JS: Sarah-Jayne often illustrates her talks with a fantastic letter sent to the broadsheets by somebody else who had found their teenage diaries.

SJB: Yes, this was a letter [in The Guardian, from Dinah Hall] that said 'There's nothing like teenage diaries for putting momentous historical events in perspective. This is my entry for 20 July 1969. "I went to arts centre (by myself!) in yellow cords and blouse. Ian was there but he didn't speak to me. Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who's apparently got a crush on me. It's Nicholas I think. UGH. Man landed on moon."

JS: I love that. Fiona, the role of technology is to the fore in your novel. Is this becoming even more important, perhaps due to the culture of sharing that hasn't been so prominent in previous generations?

FN: The really good thing about social media is that it does enable people to share experiences. You know exactly what your peers are doing, so your world becomes more defined, more immediately, by that. Social media allows teenagers to keep in touch with each other, and make arrangements, with a lot more fluency than I ever did as a teenager. But the corollary of that is that it's 24/7, it's quite difficult to switch off from it, you don't get much of a break from yourself, or from your friends.

JS: The immediacy of that peer group, the information being around you all the time, Sarah-Jayne do you think that could encourage teenagers to take more risks than they did in previous generations?

SJB: I think that in all generations there has been a drive to take risks during the teenage years. We all need to take risks, risk-taking is often a good thing. Where would we be if we took no risks? It's important for teenagers to take risks, and always has been.

I guess the types of risks teenagers take is what has changed over the years. One of the things about social media is that it's very social! Not in a real-life interaction way, and that's something that people worry about, but it is fundamentally social. Because teenagers are driven to be social, that's a major drive to affiliate with their peers and to hang out, constantly discuss things and get peer approval. It's a perfect storm.

JS: I like that idea of a perfect storm, in terms of the way the teenage brain is changing, in this current culture – Fiona, in your book you describe teenagers as having Ferrari engines with Fiat brakes.

FN: I think that's what Professor Blakemore's research is all about… as she says, teenagers have been historically programmed to take risks, but the type of risks have evolved. When we were younger, sexting didn't exist. Now it's become a normal part of adolescent risk-taking, and that's something deeply new.

JS: Sarah-Jayne, just talk me through that 'Ferrari engines with Fiat brakes' – what's happening in the brain there?

SJB: It's only in the last 15-20 years that neuroscientists have known anything about teenage brain development. Before that we just had no data. It's only recently that we've been able to scan the living brain at all ages to track changes in brain structure and function across the life span. Many labs around the world now do this, and we have a huge amount of evidence showing that the human brain undergoes very substantial and protracted development right through childhood and adolescence and even into the 20s and 30s.

One of the brain regions that undergoes the most change is called the prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your forehead. It's much bigger in humans than in any other species, and it plays a role in lots of important and high-level cognitive tasks like decision-making, planning, inhibiting risk taking, self control, self awareness and social interaction. That area is gradually developing, both in terms of its structure and how it's activated, right through adolescence.

At the same time, part of your brain right in the middle called the limbic system, regions involved in processing reward, so they give you a kick out of risk taking, and also they're involved in emotion – happiness, fear and all sorts of other emotions. Those regions are developing faster than the prefrontal cortex, so you get this mismatch between the development of these two systems in adolescence. In the teenage years, the limbic system is firing away, actually over firing, giving you the good feeling about taking risks, but the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that stops you taking risks, the brakes if you like – is still very much in development. That has become a major theory of why adolescents are particularly susceptible to risk taking, especially when they're with their friends, or in the heat of the moment when there are emotions and stress involved.

JS: One of your studies looked at how teenagers assessed risk, in the presence or absence of risk.

SJB: There's a lot of evidence that risk taking in teenagers is not because they don't understand risk, or that they feel invincible. There's no evidence of that at all. In fact, if you look at risk taking in teenagers under optimal circumstances – when they are on their own, with no distractions – they don't take more risks than adults, they can assess the situation and make adult decisions. It's when they are in the heat of the moment and when they have peers with them that they make bad decisions. We know this from some nice studies on driving and video games… they get people to come to the lab and play a driving game like at a video arcade. When participants are on their own, teenagers and adults take about the same number of risks around the course, but just having a couple of friends standing behind triples the number of risks the teenagers make, and has no effect on the number of risks the adults take.

What's interesting is that that is very much supported by real-life data from car insurance companies. Young people have more car accidents than old people, but they are more likely to happen when they have a similar aged passenger in the car with them. It's actually the opposite for older people – having a passenger in the car is protective, you're less likely to crash than when you're on your own.

JS: Fiona, the changes Sarah-Jayne are describing are gradual changes, but maybe they're significant enough to say there's a stage that teenagers are entering, there's a period we describe as adolescence. One of the themes that I found interesting in your book, reflected in the title of this session, is 'being young never gets old' – adults take stupid risks, all these changes happen throughout the lifespan as well. I wondered to what extent you see age as a factor, was it important in writing the book that adults can behave like teenagers, and teenagers can behave like adults?

FN: I think teenagers sometimes get a hard rap, they're being told that what they're doing is wrong and they're getting into trouble. I think as adults we're better at measuring the consequences of our actions, but that doesn't preclude us from also making mistakes. We're not so grouped together, named and shamed when things go wrong. Adults, most of us, we're doing quite a good impersonation of being grown up and making the right decisions, but we're not necessarily doing that if you scrutinise it closely.

JS: Your description of marriage as 'a series of atonements'! Also in the book, you wrote that having a son makes you liberal, having a daughter makes you conservative. Do you think in everything we've discussed here there are important gender differences?

FN: When I was researching for the novel I read this paper, from the University of Kansas. They had done research which showed that parents of daughters are more likely to vote Republican than parents with sons. It suggested that this conservatism round daughters can translate into political beliefs. The only issue where parents weren't Republican was on the issue of abortion, that's the only thing that stood out.

I think the reality is that with sons and daughters there is more risk for girls going out on the streets at night on their own… it shouldn't be like that but the objective reality is that. Should we say to daughters 'maybe don't wear short shorts with a crop top because you might attract the wrong type of attention'? Obviously they should be able to wear what they like, but I think there's a confusion around what we tell our daughters, and how we tell them to behave, and that translates into a wider, hypersexualised culture that has gone mainstream in terms of videos and things like that. Everything is much more in your face. Girls are presented with this world in which they can behave in this hypersexualised way, but they are still routinely condemned when they do it. There's an element of hypocrisy in the way that women are slated for acting in a way that society has, in many respects, condoned.

JS: Exactly. Some friends of ours have just had their uniform policy sent home from their daughter's school, and it dictates no strappy tops for girls and no skirts above the knee, and the reason given is that it can be uncomfortable for the male teachers.

The male-dominated porn industry is a big theme in the book, and you were telling me before we came on that in Denmark the sex education confronts pornography head on by showing teenagers porn films and discussing what is 'real' and what is 'make believe' in terms of the portrayal of sex.

FN: That's right. The Scandinavians are way ahead really, in terms of sex education and things like that. Most people know that a lot of what is on the internet really isn't reflective of human relationships. The relentless focus on male pleasure, it isn't really what it's about. The Danes have taken a step further, to have a discussion with children which could enable them to go into relationships with a more sensible view of what sex actually is.

JS: In terms of going into an education context and having those kinds of discussions, Sarah-Jayne, does your research have implications for how that might be done?

SJB: I guess the one key point about this research is it shows that not only is the teenage brain undergoing a lot of development, but it's also a period of life in which brain plasticity is heightened. The brain is particularly susceptible to incorporating information from the environment. The environment molds and shapes the way the brain develops during childhood, but now we know that continues during adolescence. The environment includes everything, from teaching to exercise, family, the social environment, things like social media use and gaming, nutrition, alcohol, all are factors that will be shaping the brain during adolescence.

We know a lot about how that happens, from a neurophysiological perspective, but this is such a young field we don't know how, for example, playing video games affects brain development. We are certain that it must, because it's an environmental influence and the brain is shaped by such influences at all ages. Whenever you learn something new, a new word, or face, or song, something in your brain changes to enable that, and that has no age limit. But the brain is particularly plastic during childhood and adolescence. This confers both positive and negative. We know, for example, that there is a sudden increase in rates of mental illness during adolescence. It has been estimated that 75 per cent of mental illness has its onset before the age of 24, much of that in adolescence. So it's a period of vulnerability, to things like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia. One theory as to why this might be is that the brain is particularly plastic, it's being exposed to new environmental stressors which might trigger the onset of mental illness in those that might have a genetic predisposition to them.

That's the negative side of brain plasticity, but the positive side is that it also confers a period of opportunity, where education and intervention are particularly efficient. This is a period where in theory you can get in and help people, and it's not too late to intervene and rehabilitate. We've got a new grant at Oxford and Cambridge with the Wellcome Trust, to look at whether mindfulness meditation can be beneficial to young teenagers in preventing depression, anxiety and stress.  It's a huge trial, in 70 schools, all based on the idea that this is a period of heightened brain plasticity when you can get in and help people.

JS: I find it interesting that one of the other ways you can help people during that period is by capitalising on that peer influence. If you want a health message to get across to a class of adolescence, you want to use the most popular child in the class to spread that message. Before I turned to editing, my academic research was bullying and it was the same sort of focus, on the children in the class that were popular who might have a role in defending the victim and changing the whole ethos around bullying in that school environment – making it so that it isn't a cool thing to do, it doesn't work, it doesn't make you feel good.

Sticking with the theme of using scientific knowledge, there's a bit in the book where a main character who is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, his wife says 'I'm not interested in your science anymore Harry. It doesn't help me feel anything differently, and it won't resolve anything.' How did you get that balance in the book, of being evidence-based while acknowledging that much science stays in the lab and doesn't get used that much in parenting?

FN: We're all human, we amass knowledge and read things every day where we think 'that makes good sense'. But when it comes to putting it into practice we don't do 'the naughty step', we just get really angry! Some days you're better at getting things right with your children than other days, but I think we're quite tough on ourselves, we have high standards of what we think we can achieve as parents and perhaps we should all be a bit more relaxed about it.

JS: Sarah-Jayne, relaxed? Or do you have your children saying 'come on, you're the expert?'

SJB: I'm not a pushover! My kids are here, you'd have to ask them. I think the neuroscience is a bit young to make implications for parenting and teaching… it will get there, but I think at the moment we don't really understand how to take it into the world.

There are a couple of exceptions. For example with sleep: there's loads of evidence, and has been for a long time, that circadian rhythms, the body clock, change at puberty. Before that, children are most alert early in the morning and then sleepy early in evening. At puberty, the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin is produced much later on in the evening, so teenagers genuinely find it difficult to go to sleep until late at night, and what that means is that they're sleepy early in the morning and can't get up, with biological reason. That does have implications for school start times. At the moment we make teenagers go to school and do a maths or physics class or whatever in what is the equivalent to our night. That's not such a sensible thing, and there are trials in America at the moment, seeing whether shifting the school start time to later in the day might benefit both educational attainment and social and emotional wellbeing.

But when I talk to parents and teenagers themselves, one of the things I find is that just giving knowledge about how the teenage brain changes empowers them. So that when the teenage child or student acts in a certain way, they can understand that from a biological point of view and they don't put the blame on the child. Teenagers get such a bad rap, when I tweet anything about the teenage brain, invariably, absolutely inevitably, I will get at least one reply saying things like 'what, teenagers actually have a brain?' Apparently it's socially acceptable to mock teenagers, and that's not the case with any other sector of society. You just wouldn't get away with making the same jokes publicly about, say, women or black people or the elderly. I think it's really wrong and we need to move towards understanding this really unique and important period of psychological development.

FN: Teenagers can teach us quite a lot as well. I know that nearly everything I've learnt about technology I've learnt from my teenage children. They're very creative in that period and they can be really interesting people to be around. We need to take an interest in what they do, rather than condemning social media we need to understand what they do on it, and let them show you.

JS: I've done my bit for that this weekend, the first thing I went to was a Minecraftathon, so I'm trying to understand Minecraft.

Just to sum up before we go to questions: Fiona, one of the main things I took from the book was the phrase 'we all have darkness and light within us, and we are in control of neither'. I think that applies to adults and teenagers alike. I'd be interested in your own take-home messages for the teenagers here.

FN: I think belief in the possibility of renewal. When something goes wrong, you're not condemned to that for the rest of your life. Quite often when things go wrong at that age it feels so fundamental, you think you're never going to come out the other side of it. But you can reinvent yourself, you can move away from mistakes, you can change. Nothing is forever.

SJB: I would echo that, by saying that brain plasticity goes on for a long time, it's never too late to change.

JS: Excellent. Before we go to the Q+A, I just want to encourage you to find us online, follow us on Twitter, and come to the book signing tent after the session for Fiona's book and free copies of The Psychologist, including a report on Sarah-Jayne's work and my review of Fiona's book.

Audience question: You said a lot about the risk taking with peers, but what is it about the social context which causes this?

SJB: For evolutionary reasons, teenagers need to affiliate with their peer group, to break away from the family, become more independent and explore their environment. We've show that teenagers are particularly affected by social exclusion – if they're socially excluded in an online game their mood decreases even more than adult mood does. If you think about that in terms of typical adolescent risk taking, let's just say trying smoking for the first time… I often get asked why very intelligent teenagers take up smoking. If you think about when they do that, it shines a more rational light on it. Normally it's when they're with their friends. What is the more risky decision, saying yes to a cigarette when she knows, as all teenage girls do, that smoking carries a significant health risk, or saying no and potentially ostracising herself from her peer group by not smoking with them? The desire, the drive to be accepted by the peer group is probably more important. So advertising that constantly focuses on the health risk, it's the wrong focus… they're well aware of the health risks, it should focus instead on the social norms and peer influence – as Jon was saying, what the cool kids are doing.

JS: If we knew what the cool kids were doing, life would be a lot easier.

Audience question: I'm a child psychotherapist, with attachment theory as my core model. Your work, Professor Blakemore, has been very helpful to me, but I'm going to be slightly provocative. You say it's never too late to change, but I wonder what you would say to the argument that worrying about teenagers, talking to them, studying them, is a little bit like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, and that we should be spending a lot more time on younger children, teaching them resilience and things like that at primary school.

SJB: That's absolutely important. Early years are critical. Studying the teenage brain does not mean that I don't think the early years are equally or even more important. But the early years have been the focus of so much attention, policy decisions and funding over the last 20-30 years, to the neglect of later years. That's the problem, this idea that you either focus on the early years or the later years. Actually it's a continuum and you need to look at the whole of lifespan development. I think it's time to focus policy decision and funding on the later years, in addition to the early years. If you throw funding at the early years and suddenly stop, that's not going to do any good. There are lots of children who slip through the net early on, but the neuroscience research says it's not too late for those children, if you can discover them.

JS: Fiona, in terms of how you wrote the book, I don't think I'm giving too much away to say there was a bit of a focus on the teenage characters in the book, and then you realise that maybe the parents have taken their eye off the ball a little bit?

FN: Yes, in the novel the parents are very preoccupied by the exams their children are doing and the life stage they are in, and they forget the 10-year-old who's right under their nose and doing all the sweet things that 10-year-olds do, but without the same kind of scrutiny.

Audience question: As a father of two teenage boys, I'm retired, aged 63 and about to become a grandfather… I think my brain's gone a bit plastic, a bit of opportunity but also vulnerability at my age.

JS: I think that was part of the theme of this session, 'being young never gets old', you can be young and act young at any stage of your life.

SJB: The definition of adolescence is the period which starts with puberty, but the end is defined as the age at which you attain a stable and independent role in society.

FN: That's quite a long time!

JS: I'm going to go for a question from a teenager now, I think that's important.

Audience question: There's lots of stuff on social media about suicide, self-harm, drugs and things like that. Do you think that makes people more aware, or do you think it's a bad thing that they're making it the norm?

JS: Best question yet! [Audience applause]

FN: I think communication is everything, and we all need to talk with our children about everything that is going on. I think that there's been a huge increase in self-harming in the UK, and it doesn't help that you can go online and find a whole audience – same with anorexia – encouraging the behaviour. I don't think that's helpful. I'm not sure what you can do about it, but I think that probably does exacerbate the problem.

SJB: I think the key thing again is peer influence. It's a way of enabling online peer influence which teenagers are very susceptible to, so it's dangerous. I don't know how you combat that, but it's getting at the fundamental focus of teenagers out there.

Audience question: My question is about the research in mindfulness, and how it's going to be a preventative measure. I was wondering if you think there's a link between mindfulness and risk taking, in that doing mindfulness could increase the prefrontal cortex and control centres, or might teenagers still be influenced by peers despite making more use of those frontal lobes? Does that make sense?

SJB: It does, it sounds like you should have written our grant application! Mindfulness is not going to be a panacea, but one of the things it is supposed to do is improve self-control and emotion regulation, so that when you're making a decision in the heat of the moment with a lot of socially or emotionally distracting factors around you – say you're at a party, you're supposed to be home by 11, but all your friends are still there having a great time, you need to make a decision to go home despite all these amazing things going on around you – that's the kind of situation where mindfulness can help you focus on the decision irrespective of the emotionally stressful or arousing things going on around you. That's the way we think mindfulness could help, not just prevent depression and anxiety but also improve resilience and coping.

JS: There's lots on at the festival around mindfulness, and you can find more on The Psychologist website. Right, one final question.

Audience question: Do you feel that approaches to parenting have changed across the generations, and has that had an impact on children's coping strategies?

FN: I think that certainly since the 1970s there's a whole raft of parenting books telling us how we should be doing it properly, and a lot of the information is quite contradictory. I remember my own mother telling me to throw those books away! There's a lot of information about how to be a good parent, when parenting is largely getting through each day in the best way you can, being a good enough parent not the perfect parent.

SJB: A lot of people here will recognise that we allow our children to take far fewer risks these days than we did when we were children. We took way more risks, in terms of walking to school by ourselves, being more independent from our parents at a younger age. We slightly wrap our children up in cotton wool… but that again is peer influence, because we're frightened of what other parents will think of us if we're the only ones to allow our children to take risks. What's going to happen to these children who have no experience of taking their own risks, of failing as teenagers? They have to do that to become independent adults.

JS: I feel that's a good note to end on, and I'm sure that sooner or later we're going to hear more about Professor Blakemore's teenage diaries… I'm looking forward to seeing them published in unredacted form.

SJB: I'm burning them!

JS: Thank you Sarah-Jayne and Fiona, thank you all so much for coming, I've enjoyed it, I hope you have, and I hope to see you again next year! 

- Listen to a brief interview with Professor Blakemore (02:29:10 in), read more about the science at Latitude, and keep an eye out for news of next year's event.