What Are They Thinking?! Aaron White, Scott Swartzwelder, W.W. Norton, 2013.
The Teenage Brain. Frances E. Jensen, Amy Ellis Nutt, HarperCollins, 2015
Most books on the “teen brain” and “parenting teens” disturb me a lot. I can see why they’re popular. They soothe and flatter adults, positively stereotyping parents as aggrieved, innocent, and healthy, whose “mature” brains are exasperated and often frightened by the troubles inflicted on them by their teens. Teenagers are negatively stereotyped as scary, risky, obnoxious (with a few redeeming qualities), characterized by “recklessness, rudeness, and cluelessness,” and subjecting parents and teachers to “outburst(s) of anger, tears, poutiness, withdrawal, irritability, even hostility” every day!
I worked with adolescents for 10 years on a daily basis and researched youth and adult behaviors for 25 years. My shocking conclusion from both experiences: Teens are individuals, not cutouts. Generalizations and quips teen-brain authors dispense reveal their own simplistic thinking and bigotry, not what teenagers are “really like.”
These books feature standard reviews of selected studies (omitting more unsettling research), rampant miscitation of statistics, and vastly premature claims about brain science they admit is “poorly understood.” I picked these two books as more recent, popular, and representative of the genre.
Blunt question for PhD-, MD-, and psychologist-authors unburdening on the “teenage brain:” Why is it okay to lie about adolescents? I don’t mean small lies; I mean huge, wholesale fabrications that would destroy the entire basis of these teen-brain-risk books if acknowledged.
The fact is: teenagers are NOT “high-risk.” Teens are SAFER from suicide, homicide, accidents, drug and alcohol deaths, gun deaths, and other measures of immature risk-taking these authors use than EVERY age of older adults, and have been for decades.
To understand how youthful troubles are generated not by their brain deficiencies, but by difficult conditions imposed on them, consider violent death rates tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control in the most recent year for teens at the highest-risk ages (15-19) versus adults of ages to be their parents (say, 40-59).
For non-Hispanic Whites (who generally are middle-class or more affluent), middle-aged parents are 2.1 times more likely to be murdered, 2.4 times more likely to commit suicide, 2.5 times more likely than their teen to die in an accident, 2.7 times more likely to die from guns, 6.9 times more likely to die from illicit-drug abuse, 9.2 times more likely to die from an alcohol overdose, and equally likely to die in a car crash. Overall, White middle-agers are 2.5 times more likely than White teens even at their riskiest adolescent ages to die from risky behaviors. (Sound incredible? Check our tabulation or to the CDC’s WISQARS page and check yourself.)
In contrast, African Americans teenagers, our poorest demographic, are twice as likely to be murdered and to die by guns than their parents – but overall, their parents are still 1.4 times more likely to die from violent causes than teens, including 17 times more likely to die by illicit drugs. Hispanics are in between those of Whites and African Americans.
The problem is, someone 50 or 100 years ago invented the notion that teens are a dangerous age compared to adults, and authorities have been parroting that myth ever since. The fact is, teenagers are not “risky,” but the stresses of poverty create risks, which are then selectively blamed on teens.
Strangely, the much higher parent-age risk appears to derive not from poverty, but from risky behavior choices with drugs, guns, alcohol, etc., of exactly the types we blame on adolescents. The real risk patterns are a shock, give, how many places – practically every page – these authors praise adult-brain superiority, including “developed frontal lobes” that enable learning from mistakes, a larger perspective that deters suicide, and “reasoned” and ”sensible” planning to avoid danger.
High-risk youth also are often abused; 250,000 youths under age 18 are substantiated victims of violent, sexual, and/or severe psychological abuses in their homes every year, nearly all inflicted by parents. So, how much attention do the “teen brain” books allocate to the most important issues: poverty, abuse, and risk-taking parents? Just about none; a few offhand phrases to a couple of pages. However, authors are eager to blame media, the internet, and video games, and especially the “undeveloped frontal lobes” and “dopamine excess” that supposedly drive teens to trouble. And while they publicly detail their kids’ problems in negative terms for readers, these authors are curiously unwilling to critically examine their own troubles (i.e., Jensen’s divorce).
These authors’ faulty theory that the “teenage brain” promotes risk rests in the false assumption that teenagers act in singularly risky ways. This compounded illogic leads to another myth: that the adult brain is “developed.” Brain development occurs throughout life. The middle-aged brain, for example, experiences loss of memory and learning genes and cognitive capacity. These changes may contribute to middle-agers’ vulnerability to blanket stereotyping, nostalgic fantasies, irrational fear of anything new, and inexplicably high-risk behaviors at a time when they enjoy life’s highest economic and social advantages. And to conflicts with teens.
In short, these books indulge dangerous, feel-good escapism packed with images of teens not as individuals, but as “irrational, impulsive, and wrongheaded” metaphors: selective statistics (often wrong) and studies claiming adolescents are “different” from adults; and failure to include the huge body of literature showing youths and adults in similar locales and circumstances behave very much alike.
I think we have two choices. We can continue, as these authors do, to indulge the “fun” course smugly praising our grownup brains as mature and parents and professionals as near-perfect in every way, and teens as merely victims of their immature, dopamine-driven adolescent brains, danger-hyping peers, and corrupting popular culture. Or, we can switch to the humbler, realistic, “no fun” course incorporating the real world teenagers actually experience, including grownups and parents acting in inexplicably troubling ways and poverty and family abuses as the main drivers of risky youth behaviors. Do we grownups value having fun with self-flattery more than the well-being of our society’s young people?