The “Teen Brain” Craze: New Science or Ancient Politics?

The “teen brain” craze: New science or old politics?

July 5, 2007

“Stupid,” “crazy,” “reckless,” “immature,” “irrational,” “troubling,” “exasperating,” “mindlessly hormonal,” and even “alien” have been among the epithets hurled at teens by major news media reporters and commentators touting “new scientific discoveries” that supposedly prove grownup brains are mature and teenagers brainless.

What accounts for this avalanche of vituperation against youth that would be unacceptable to direct at any other group? America’s news media have erupted with identical, rigidly one-sided features (for examples of herd journalism mooing at its worst, see Boston Globe, 11/10/05; Rocky Mountain News, 10/20/05; The New York Times, 1/08/06; Copely News Service, 12/19/05; Washington Post, 11/15/05; Public Broadcasting System, 1/31/02; Newsweek, 2/28/00) touting a handful of irresponsible scientists led by Jay Giedd of the National Institutes of Mental Health, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of Harvard University Medical School, who have made names for themselves with sweeping claims that “science” has “found” why “teenagers act the way they do.”

Many of researchers publicizing the “adolescent brainlessness” argument have openly advocated stripping not just adolescent, but young adult rights.

Yurgelun-Todd argues that both juvenile and adult teens should be banned from holding licenses or exercising any adult responsibilities. Giedd and Steinberg have suggested that persons under age 25 should not be allowed to vote, drive, or exercise other adult rights. Because the “brainless teen” notion flatter the agendas of numerous interest groups and facilitates self-satisfied media sensationalism, it has been accepted as fact even though responsible scientists caution against such rash assumptions.

News articles employ sweeping generalizations sympathizing with the suffering parents of teens as if (a) addicted and alcoholic parents, (b) mentally troubled parents, (c) family violence, (d) divorce, and (e) the last 30 years, never happened. It is highly suspicious that at a time when middle-agers display skyrocketing crises such as drug abuse and criminal arrest, “science” suddenly “discovers” that any conflict between adults and youths can be dismissed as the fault of faulty teenage brains.

But there are compelling reasons than the intemperate name-calling reporters and authorities hurl at teens, their crude stereotypes of adolescents, and the self-pitying nature of Baby-Boom parents quoted in such news reports (these are examples of mature adult cerebral cortexes at work?) that should cast doubt on the latest “teen brain” furor. The science behind it is based on antiquated politics and selective citations, not objective rigor. Nor do claims that teenage brains are some awful mistake of nature hold up either in practical research or the real world. If biodeterminist notions about adolescents are valid, they should apply to all teens—yet, middle-class and more affluent American adolescents and European youth display very low rates of risky behaviors of the types commentators stereotype as characteristic of teenagers.

1. Adolescents, immature brains and all, are doing far better today than the supposedly cerebrally-developed midlifers complaining about them. Americans don’t seem to realize how profoundly the behavior of middle-aged adults has deteriorated (even amid rising wealth) as adolescent behavior generally has improved (even amid rising poverty) (Table 1).

Table 1. Changes in teen and parent generations, 1970-2004/05*

Behavior and Condition
Teen age 10-19
Adult age 35-54
Drug overdose deaths
UP 8%
UP 279%
Suicidal deaths
DOWN 12%
UP 29%
Serious crime
DOWN 29%
UP 106%
Imprisonment*
DOWN 58%
UP 467%
Income
DOWN 15%
UP 15%
Poverty
UP 21%
WN 15%

 

*Latest death figures are for 2004; crime and imprisonment figures are for 2005. Imprisonment figures are for California since national figures for juvenile teens are not available. Poverty and income is from decennial Census reports. Sources: National Center for Health Statistics (deaths),1970-2004; Census Bureau, (poverty, income), 1969, 1999; FBI, 1970-2005; California Criminal Justice Statistics Center and Department of Corrections, 1970-2005.

Statistics for the most recent year available (2004 or 2005) show ballooning crises among adults of the age most likely to be parents of teens (around 35 to 54) more serious than anything going on among teens:

  • 46,500 fatal accidents and suicides among ages 35-54 in 2004, leaving today’s middle-agers 60% more at risk than are teens ages 15-19 (National Center for Health Statistics);
  • a record 18,249 illicit-drug deaths among ages 35-54 in 2004, a rate five times higher than for teens ages 15-19 (NCHS);
  • a record 4,065,000 criminal arrests among ages 35-54 in 2005, including 1,040,000 for violent offenses, 500,000 for drugs, and 650,000 for public drunkenness and driving while intoxicated (FBI);
  • a record 630,000 Americans that age in prison in 2005 (Bureau of Justice Statistics);
  • a record 100,000 new diagnoses in the last five years among adults in their 40s and 50s, who now make up 42% of all new HIV cases, up from 17% a decade ago. Meanwhile, the share for persons under 30 dropped from 43% in 1995 to 26% in 2005 (Centers for Disease Control);
  • 21 million 35-54-year-olds are binge drinkers (those downing five or more drinks on one occasion in the previous month), double the number among teens and college students combined (National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health);
  • 470,000 Americans ages 35-54 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for abusing illegal drugs in 2005, with overdose rates for heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals, and drugs mixed with alcohol far higher than among teens (Drug Abuse Warning Network);
  • 1.2 million ages 35-54 get divorced every year (Bureau of the Census);
  • Domestic violence: California, one of the few states to tabulate domestic violence arrests, reported 30,922 among ages 40-59 in 1998 (the most recent year tabulated), 54% of all such arrests (California Criminal Justice Statistics Center). This suggests approximately a quarter million middle-aged domestic violence arrests nationally, which does not include the huge number of unreported cases;
  • A record 33% of Americans ages 35-54 are obese and 60% overweight, up 125% since 1980, leaving (CDC);

 

In the eight years it takes them to grow from ages 10 through 17, then, America’s 35 million adolescents will see their parents’ generation ages 35-54 suffer (or perpetrate) the following:

  • 450,000 violent deaths, including 180,000 illicit-drug deaths, 98,000 suicides, 76,000 firearms deaths, and 103,000 traffic deaths (33,000 of these resulting from drunken driving);
  • 200,000 new HIV infections;
  • 3 million hospital emergencies for illicit-drug overdoses;
  • 30 million criminal arrests, including 8 million for violent felonies, 12 million for property felonies, 7 million for alcohol- and drug-related offenses;
  • 5 million imprisonments;
  • 2 million arrested for domestic violence;
  • 8 million divorces.

 

And experts stridently argue that any parent-teen conflict can be dismissed as simply a brain-addled teenagers’ attitude problem? Incredibly, academic authorities, officials, and the news media pretend none of this middle-aged calamity exists. They also deny that the most trouble teenaged behaviors they cite to illustrate their “teen brain” disparagements overwhelmingly originate in families and communities where adults are addicted, criminal, abusive, mentally disturbed, and disarrayed. Rather, these “experts” simply blame “teenage risk-taking” exacerbated by permissive parents.

In startling truth, teens get along with their parents better than their parents get along with each other. The massive numbers of teens living in families rife with parental conflict is only partly indicated by the huge divorce rate in the United States, now approaching 50% of marriages.

Beyond the suspicious contexts for the “discovery” that teenagers are mentally incompetent lies the suspicious science itself and its contradiction by real-world research and complete failure to predict real-world behaviors. Major institutions and interest groups, including defense lawyers, have hyped “teen brain” research beyond all reason because of its temporary expediency, not its scientific validity.

2. Scientists always seem to find biological flaws in the brains of populations that politicians and the public find fearsome or blameworthy for social problems. Over the last century, scientists have variously declared African and Native Americans, Chinese and Japanese, Latinos, women, and eastern and southern Europeans cognitively deficient after “scientific” examination of brain dimensions, cerebral cortex volume, and intelligence testing (see Gould, Stephen J., The Mismeasure of Man, 1982).

Scientists and interest groups made the same claims about teens in the past. Today’s is just the latest in a series of ill-motivated “scientific” campaigns to brand teenagers as mentally incompetent. University of Washington-Madison researchers studied social science literature and found that during wartime and “when youths’ labor was needed, they were viewed as quite capable and adultlike,” but “when youth were not needed in the work force, they were viewed as more immature and slow to develop” by scientists.

The latest announcement that teenagers are incompetent follows a decade of intense efforts by politicians to blame social problems on adolescents and to obtain stronger controls on youth. Notice that scientists never seem to find brain flaws in powerful populations, even though “science” has cast far more doubt on the capabilities of the aging adult brain than on teens.

But hasn’t brain research advanced dramatically in recent decades? Yes. To the point that definitive pronouncements can be made about how brain physiology “makes teenagers act”? Not even nearly. Brain research is at a very primitive stage. Consider the cautions of leading scientists, which have received little attention. Public Broadcasting System, for example, did not broadcast its interviews with leading scientists in its “Inside the Teenage Brain” show (January 31, 2002), but it did post them on PBS’s website as background. These detailed interviews provided a completely different picture than the breathless broadcast.

Asked, “how much do we know about the relationship between the anatomy or biology of the brain and behavior?” Daniel Siegel of UCLA’s School of Medicine, co-investigator at UCLA’s Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, and director of the Center for Human Development in Los Angeles, answered: “We are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work together in an integrated fashion to create complex mental processes.” Kurt W. Fischer, Professor of Education and Human Development and director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was even more emphatic. “We do not know very much!” he said, adding:

Key to our understanding is how the brain functions as a system—for example, how neural networks grow and function across brain regions. Most of the recent advances in brain science have involved knowledge of the biology of single neurons and synapses, not knowledge of patterns of connection and other aspects of the brain as a system. In time the new imaging techniques will help scientists and educators to understand how brain and behavior work together, but we have a very long way to go.

When neuroscience connects to scientific knowledge about cognition and development, it can be helpful in a global way, supporting the cognitive developmental knowledge; but it cannot provide specific guidance on its own. With the excitement of the remarkable advances in biology and neuroscience in recent decades, people naturally want to use brain science to inform policy and practice, but our limited knowledge of the brain places extreme limits on that effort. There can be no “brain-based education” or “brain-based parenting” at this early point in the history of neuroscience! (emphasis mine).

Note well: “our limited knowledge of the brain” at “this early point in the history of neuroscience” means it cannot be used “to inform policy and practice” or to establish “brain-based parenting.” Richard Lerner, director of Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, agrees brain research is “in its infancy” and “it’s way too premature to make those specific links” between biology and behavior. These strongly-worded cautions from the leading researchers diametrically refute the reckless demagoguery flooding the news media and policy forums. As does the practical reality everyone can see: If authorities’ hyperventilations flooding the press about how dangerous teens are were valid, every adolescent in the United States would be dead five times over.

3. The preponderance of laboratory research does not find significant differences between adult and teenage cognitive ability. Major research reviews have found teenagers do not indulge fantasies ofinvulnerability (actually, adults take more irrational risks), are not governed by hormones or irrationality, do not rebel against parents, perceive risks and options as rationally as adults do (that is, not always rationally), and are limited more by inexperience than brain deficiencies. The few studies which claim to find vast differences between teens and adults—such as Laurence Steinberg’s video-game simulations and Yurgelun-Todd’s interpretation of facial expressions—have been conducted by ideologues and contain serious method problems. For example, Steinberg, who used video game simulations to claim that adolescents in groups take more risks than adults in groups, failed to control for the vastly differing levels of experience a youth generation raised on video games would possess when pitted against an adult generation with little experience.

4. Scientists have not compared teenage and adult risk taking on a level playing field. An even worse bias plaguing studies comparing statistical differences in teenage and adult risk-outcome levels (which usually focus on traffic deaths and homicide, for which teens have higher rates, and avoid examining suicides, drug overdoses, or other accidents, for which adults look worse) is failure to control for socioeconomic status. This is a fundamental flaw that renders such studies invalid on their face. For example, consider the following straight-across comparison of homicide deaths by race (Table 2).

Table 2. Murder rates per 100,000 population by race, age, 2000-04

Age
White
Black
Latino
Asian
Native
Total
15-24
3.8
48.5
18.1
5.4
14.6
13.0
25-34
4.7
46.2
13.3
4.1
15.9
11.8
35-44
4.7
24.8
8.9
3.5
12.6
7.8
45-54
3.5
15.9
6.6
3.6
8.1
5.2
55-64
2.5
8.6
4.2
3.4
3.6
3.3
65+
1.9
6.7
3.2
2.3
5.9
2.5
All ages
3.1
22.6
8.5
6.0
9.2
6.4
n
30,728
40,756
16,335
2,007
1,101
91,374

 

Source: CDC, WISQARS

Note that the homicide rate, often cited by authorities as evidence of high teenage and young-adult risk, is seven times higher among blacks than whites—in fact, two to four times higher among black middle-agers than among white 15-24 year-olds. However, a scientist who argued that African Americans’ high murder rates derived from brain biology inferior to that of whites would be rightly denounced as a racist. Rather, responsible scientists would point out that the races are not being examined under equivalent conditions. For example, higher rates of poverty—while not explaining everything—are linked to higher rates of murder, regardless of race. Note the much higher poverty levels among blacks when compared to whites (Table 3).

Table 3. Percent of population living in poverty by race, age, 1999

Age
White
Black
Latino
Asian
Native All races
15-24
14.5%
29.5%
25.2%
22.3%
29.5%
19.0%
25-34
7.6%
20.8%
20.6%
11.9%
22.8%
11.7%
35-44
6.1%
18.5%
18.4%
9.6%
21.3%
9.4%
45-54
5.3%
16.5%
15.2%
8.1%
18.0%
7.6%
55-64
6.8%
19.8%
17.2%
8.5%
21.6%
9.0%
65+
7.8%
23.5%
19.6%
12.3%
23.5%
9.9%
All ages
8.1%
24.9%
22.6%
12.6%
25.7%
12.4%

 

Source: US Bureau of the Census, 2000.

Legitimate scientists would control for a host of factors (poverty being one) that have been shown to affect homicide rates independently of race.

Now, look at Table 3 again, this time for poverty rates by age. Notice that within each race, 15-24 year-olds are poorer than older adults—average 2.5 times poorer than middle-agers of their races. Note that the higher murder rates by age, just like those for blacks versus whites, relate closely to poverty levels. However, social scientists have not controlled for the sharply differing rates of poverty by age before leaping to the conclusion that teens are innately riskier than adults.

Does poverty increase adolescent dangers? You bet it does. Table 4 shows average annual teenaged death rates from guns and motor vehicles—the instruments that cause three-fourths of all external deaths among teenagers—in four roughly equally sized teenaged populations: those with the lowest poverty rates (from 3% to 7%, which resemble European levels) through the highest (25% and higher).

Table 4. Teenage (age 15-19) death rates from guns and traffic crashes

Gun deaths/100,000 pop.
Motor vehicle deaths per:
Poverty rate
All gun deaths
Homicide
100,000 population
Billion miles driven
3 to 7%
3.0
0.9
10.2
15.6
8 to 14%
4.9
2.4
17.5
30.9
15 to 24%
6.5
5.0
24.0
50.7
25 to 77%
17.2
15.1
32.8
75.6

 

Annual average death rates, California, 1985-2004. Sources: Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services; Fatality Analysis Reporting System, US Department of Transportation.

As poverty rates rise, the two biggest causes of teenage death skyrocket. The poorest teens suffer traffic death rates three to five times higher, gun death rates five to six times higher, and gun murder rates 16 times higher than teens living in the richest counties.

The vastly higher risks of poorer teens are not due to their physical exposure to more guns or driving. In fact, richer teens drive many more miles (roughly twice as many per year) and are more likely to live in homes where firearms are present than are poorer adolescents. Rather, the risks are due to the very different contexts in which teenagers encounter guns and driving depending on their differing socioeconomic statuses.

This pattern invites the question of whether supposedly high teenage risks moderate or disappear when compared with adults of equivalent poverty status. That is: is it bad brains (nature) or bad poverty (environment) that promotes teenage dangers?

It is disturbingly difficult to compare teens and young adults with older adults on a level economic playing field because there are very few counties in which California teens and young adults enjoy poverty rates of less than 15%, and very few in which adults ages 45 and older suffer poverty levels of greater than 15%. Table 5 compares the average annual fatal crash rate per 1 billion miles driven for each driver age group for 1994 through 2005 without controlling for poverty, then after adjusting to control poverty levels at a constant level of 10% to 15% for all ages.

Table 5. Fatal crash rates per 1 billion miles driven, adjusted and unadjusted for poverty*

All drivers
Licensed drivers only
Poverty rates
Age of driver
Unadjusted for poverty
10-14% poverty level
Unadjusted for poverty
10-14% poverty level
Unadjusted
Adjusted 10-14%
15-19
39.6
27.7
30.9
23.6
16.3%
12.2%
20-24
26.8
20.5
19.5
15.2
21.3%
13.4%
25-34
16.3
14.1
12.1
10.6
13.5%
12.7%
35-44
13.2
18.4
11.1
15.2
10.7%
12.8%
45-54
11.2
22.8
10.2
19.8
8.1%
12.1%
55-64
12.6
20.3
11.5
18.6
8.4%
11.8%
All ages
21.6
20.4
17.2
16.9
12.2%
12.4%

 

*Average annual rates, 1994-2005, California. Source: FARS.

All comparisons of teenage and adult drivers use the unadjusted figures, shown in Table 4 in the left-hand column. Per billion miles driven (the best measure of risk), the 39.6 fatal crashes teen drivers suffer is 3.54 times the rate of the safest adult age group, 45-54, at 11.2. Thus, driving risks decline with age until around age 65, with teens appearing to be the riskiest drivers by far.

However, when teens are compared to adults with equivalent poverty rates (the next-to-left column), the teen risk gap diminishes sharply. Teen drivers are only 1.21 (or 21%) more at risk of causing a fatal accident per billion miles driven than drivers age 45-54.

However, one more adjustment needs to be made. The fatality rate is calculated as fatal crashes per licensed driver. However, many fatal crashes—particularly among poorer populations unable to afford licensing expenses—are caused by unlicensed drivers, which inflates the teen fatality rates compared to wealthier older ages. When fatal crashes involving licensed drivers only are compared at equalized poverty levels (right-hand column), the risk gap between teen drivers and drivers ages 45-54 drops to 19%.

In short, the more the playing field is leveled to equalize poverty rates and the effects of unlicensed drivers for all age groups, the more the teen risk diminishes and middle-aged dangers increase. These are the kinds of adjustments routinely made when social scientists compare risks for other groups in society (i.e., races, or populations of different regions). That teenagers from wealthier backgrounds have driving risks as low as adults of similar economic status suggests that teenage risks appear much more tied to an environmental variable imposed on them—poverty—than to innately hazardous brains.

Conclusion: The supposedly immature brain development that renders teenagers naturally risk-prone mysteriously fails to affect teenagers from more affluent backgrounds, or from Europe or Japan (where youth poverty rates and dangers are low), who routinely display risks lower than adults do. Rather, “science’s discovery” of the problematic “teenage brain” is just the latest in a long, disgraceful history of alliances between officials, interest groups, sensational media, and a small number of scientists who serve their needs. The ability of authorities to scapegoat unpopular, powerless groups in society instead of facing difficult social problems—in this case, rising middle-aged drug and crime epidemics and the effects of poverty on youth risk—endangers Americans by preventing realistic solutions to serious crises.