The scientific explanation for the world-changing power of teenage angst

Bottle this and do great things.
Bottle this and do great things.
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To many, teenagers are mercurial creatures. They can be moody and defiant, and seem to spend disproportionate amounts of time worrying about what others think of them. But all this angst and emotion can be harnessed for good, according to a new article published as part of a series in Nature and Scientific American about the importance of adolescence.

The world is now at a “triple tipping point” with adolescence, according to Ronald Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley and lead author on one of the Nature articles. There are more than 1.2 billion teens on the planet, the largest share ever. They are coming of age during a technological revolution that can amplify the best parts of being a teen (building a sense of connection via gifs and emojis), or the worst parts (exclusion, exploitation, radicalization, social isolation, and mental health problems). And adolescence now lasts longer, with an earlier onset of puberty and a postponement of traditional markers of adulthood. Taken together, that means society now has a prolonged period in which to intervene to support and empower teens.

“Today’s teenagers are projected to make up the largest generation in human history so far, and health and well-being in adolescence set the trajectory for the rest of a person’s life,” Nature said in a press release.

The power of teenage emotion

Adolescence is a period of intense growth and heightened sensitivity. Neurobiological and hormonal changes elevate teens’ desire to feel a sense of belonging, to be respected and admired, and to find meaning. It is a period of peak growth and potential, but also tremendous risks.

“We have expanded adolescence, which is good,” Dahl says. “There’s more time to figure out who you are.” But it is also longer to be vulnerable, he adds.

We need look no farther than the current teen-led gun control movement, born from the tragedy of the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to see the good that teens can produce from raw, uncensored, and very real emotion.

“This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion,” said Delaney Tarr, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager, these are our strengths.”

Our growing understanding of the complexities of the teenage brain should compel policymakers to think more intentionally about how to invest in adolescence. After all, what happens during our teenage years sets the patterns that can lead to a lifetime of productive work (and tax-paying), or to crime and risky health behaviors such as addiction. Today’s teenagers are also the next generation of parents; what they learn to value now will influence the ways they raise their own children. And through their use of technology, teenagers are unique innovators, with the potential to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, from climate change to inequality.

But to create policies and approaches that encourage teenagers to become a force for good, we need to pay attention to the science of what is happening inside their brains.

The teenage brain

Dahl and his colleagues explain that during adolescence, teenagers’ brains are being restructured. Hormones are elevated, and major growth is happening. Meanwhile teens are figuring who they are, and what the world is. Not small stuff.

The way the brain re-shapes itself during our teenage years is both critical and revealing. In early adolescence, the emotional part of the brain grows faster than the control center. That creates opportunities for learning, but also heightened desire for risk-taking. (It is no coincidence that the risk of death rises dramatically in adolescence, from suicide, violence, depression, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted disease, to name a few.) Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood , says she explains this stage of the brain’s development to teens to provide context for their experiences. “Teenagers love to hear this. You see relief on their face,” she tells Quartz.

Meanwhile, the rise in testosterone in boys and girls is associated with heightened status seeking. That desire for status can be used for good: Tibetan Buddhists, Dahl notes, award the highest prestige to those who are kindest or most compassionate. Alternatively, if we celebrate toxic masculinity and aggression, we deepen gender divides, relegating men to destructive behaviors and deep loneliness.

“For humans, the process of earning prestige—as a way to be admired, gain respect, and feelings of belonging and social value—can diverge from stereotypical images of aggression, dominance and status,” Dahl wrote in an email. “Culture, and patterns of individual experiential learning, shapes the learning process during the this window of opportunity.”

The window may be narrow, in spite of the prolonged nature of adolescence. As kids get older, the authors describe the changes in the brain as more “global refinement and stabilization.” Teens become sharper, and their brains get better at figuring out what they need, meaning they might not be so receptive to the value and priorities we offer.

What can we do about it

“Changes in the brain during adolescence not only shape behavior, but also learning—in ways that could have lifelong impacts,” Dahl and his co-authors write. They offer some examples of how we can create policies that factor in what we know about teen brains in order to encourage teenagers to become positive forces for good.

First, since teens need social affirmation more than most, it’s particularly important for the adults around them to celebrate kindness, and not aggression. (Be the Buddhist, and not the warrior).

Second, educators, parents, and communities should think about how take into account teens’ elevated need for social affirmation and growing autonomy to shape learning environments. Tap into their need to be with friends and seek or confer prestige by finding channels for collaborative learning and hands-on experiential learning. Expose teenagers to more ways of learning because their ever-more sophisticated brain wants to integrate information, not just be told things. Teachers should also go out of their way to treat teens with respect. Collectively, these approaches can help teenagers become involved and inspired members of their school and communities.

It’s worth noting that learning is about much more than what happens in school, Dahl says. “The distinct types of learning that appear to be most important in adolescence are not about learning and remembering facts –or even learning skills,” he says. “It is about learning that connects strong emotions with more complex ways of thinking—in ways that contribute to motivational learning.” That includes “feelings about what is important, personal feelings about heartfelt goals and values. And feelings about self and other.” And so we need to go beyond chemistry and SATs to help teenagers learn about the world they live in.

Finally, to channel teenage energy in productive directions, we should reframe the way we talk about social issues. Teens have amazing bullshit detectors, a tendency for defiance, and a genuine desire for authenticity. We can use that to leverage learning.

Consider a study that looked at how a group of teens responded to two messages about junk food. In the first, they read about the virtues of healthy eating, including how the body digests it. In the second, they read an expose about how junk food companies were out to get them addicted. The teenagers that heard they were being screwed ate less junk food the next day.

“Adolescents have this craziness that we can criticize — or we can tap into,” Ron Berger, chief academic officer at EL Education, a nonprofit network of 150 US schools, told the New York Times. “This is a time in their lives when justice matters, more than any other time.” Combine teens’ need for status with peer work, the right enemy (whether it’s junk food companies or politicians who refuse to budge on gun control), and a little risk, and you may just have the makings to start saving the world.