Understanding The Brain Of A Teenager: As children enter their teens, they spend more and more time with their peers. The feedback they get from friends and colleagues at school might tune their brain’s reward system to be more sensitive to the reward value of risky pursuits. This sensitivity may drive teenagers to concentrate on the short-term benefits of making risky choices over the safer, long-term alternatives.
The cognitive control system in our brains, which helps “put the brakes” on risky behavior, takes longer to mature.…“The authors explain that a new wave of research at a point where behavior and neuroscience overlap suggests that peer pressure and conformity fundamentally changes the calculus of teen risk taking.”
In a previous study published in 2009, Steinberg and team discovered that 14-year-olds were much greater risk takers in a driving simulation game when they were tested in the presence of their peers, compared to the same test without their peers around. While a 14-year old takes twice as many risk in the presence of peers, older adolescents were found to take 50% more risks.
More recently, Steinberg and colleagues showed that adults do not take more risks when observed by their peers, but teenagers do. The teenagers also had more activity in the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex regions of the brain, which are involved in evaluating rewards.
Research appears to show that when adolescents are with their peers, their risky decision-making tendencies are heightened because of a change in the way their brains process rewards.
Our Communities Have Changed
Schools have extended compulsory attendance and now young people attend mass schools for a very long time. And in the last thirty years, the working-class family and the neighborhood social networks that created social time for teens outside of peer-only groups have both disintegrated (blame mass incarceration, working-class wage decline, corporate kleptocracy, the national security state). Everyone works longer hours for less except those at the top. That means schools themselves, with their age sorting and grouping mechanisms, contribute at a greater level than before to peer-dependence and its consequences.
Wealthier families still have the power of the purse to finance family vacations for special bonding time, equip their homes with expensive toys and gear that extend learning, provide expensive afterschool activities that keep kids busy and stimulated, all in calm homes with comfy study spaces where they never miss the basics, like food and medical care.
Working-class families cannot provide the offsets to peer influence that used to be more common: there isn’t money, there isn’t time and no one’s around much. Schools provide very limited extracurricular activities most of which filter out large numbers of students through grade requirements or time requirements or fees. Family leave, sick leave and vacation time are scarce, mass incarceration and wage decline have decimated families and communities, and the basics of food and medical care are not so basic anymore.
We can’t build our social system around marriage anymore | Family Inequality: “If the new book by sociologist Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson is to be believed, there is good news for the floundering marriage movement in this approach: Policies to improve the security of poor people and their children also tend to improve the stability of their relationships.“
Attachment Theory Can Help
Ongoing research in attachment theory has generated a body of work that confirms what many families have discovered homeschooling: teens need deep support and interactions that are not restricted to their peers. Adequate time with parents and mentors, less peer time and more flexibility about that time, more social time among diverse ages, all would allow the brain to develop more. The growing length of schooling, as well as the age-segregated model, conflicts with the growth and development patterns of young people (even if the current school model worked better when our communities and economy were very different than they are today.)
Note on this video: This video portrays professionals but the majority of attachment education in the US is done through peer-to-peer groups, like La Leche League, attachment parenting, or other voluntary groups of various kinds. Our mass institutions, our jobs and schools, do not recognize these instinctive social needs at this time.
Using attachment theory to more fully develop an awareness of the social needs of children and teens can help us make institutions like public schooling more flexible and responsive to families. Learning activities, developing skills, and acquiring credentials are all worthwhile activities but clearly these activities must be available within a framework that acknowledges and works with some conception of human development and growth. Attachment theory provides a vital framework to grasp the human dynamics of our social life and its implications for learning. Building sustainable institutions will require this understanding our attachment needs as human beings. Mass, age-segregated models work against many teens with lower social capital and resources.
Peer-dependence and the segregated structure of our communities means the time has come for schools to begin thinking how to change their model. A learning services model would allow families to choose services and make granular adjustments to maximize the environment for the child. A change of model would allow credentialism to be separate from learning. It would also begin to empower families who are the only ones who can make real change happen. Schools must stop complaining about families who do not provide them with the right kind of students: schools must begin to support families and kids in their lives as they live them now.
Image via Wikipedia under Creative Commons license