Leading Expert on Adolescence Discusses Brain Development, Risk-Taking, and Self-Regulation
Published December 17, 2015
To celebrate the publication, we sat down with Steinberg to discuss recent discoveries in the field, adolescent brain development, risk-taking, impulse control, and more.
Christina Yu: How do you think adolescence should be defined? In your view, what are the most important recent discoveries around the duration of adolescence?
Lawrence Steinberg: I’ve always felt that adolescence is best thought of as beginning in biology, with the changes on puberty, and ending in culture, with the transition into society’s main roles of adulthood. By that definition, adolescence, at least in contemporary industrialized society, runs from around age 10 to age 25. Because the age of puberty has dropped and the age at which people enter adult roles has increased, the stage is longer than it’s ever been in human history.
CY: Why are adolescent years so developmentally crucial?
LS: Because the period is both so formative and so malleable. That makes it both a time of tremendous opportunity, but also a time of considerable vulnerability.
CY: How should education as we know it change in light of recent discoveries about the nature of adolescence?
LS: I think we’re coming to see how important the development of self-regulation is for psychological health and for success in life. Unfortunately, we do very little in schools to help foster this capacity. I’d like to see schools focus more on this. Currently, they focus too much on conventional academic skills. That’s important, but research shows that grit is more important than intelligence, at least as far as success in school and work goes.
CY: How do you teach adolescence in your classroom? How does your research affect your class? Any particular threads or issues you like to weave into class discussion?
LS: It really depends on whether I’m teaching a large lecture class, a smaller discussion-oriented class, or a seminar for graduate students or advanced undergraduates. I’ve been teaching adolescence for 40 years, now, and I’ve never had a class in which I had to work hard to get students interested in the material. That’s one of the joys of teaching adolescence—even in lecture classes there always is plenty of discussion. In undergraduate classes, I often ask students to write about their own experiences growing up. They do this anonymously, and we have class discussions that use these essays as jumping off points. I also have used a lot of literature; there are so many great novels about coming of age. I try not to spend too much time on my own research, but I do have a lot of students who volunteer to work in our lab.
CY: What topics are your students most interested in?
LS: The family always generates a lot of interest, as does the peer group. Although I try to downplay problematic development, topics like delinquency, drug use, and depression always generate a lot of interest. A lot of my students are planning careers in which they will work with teenagers, and these topics lend themselves to applied discussions. Students also are interested in talking about where we should draw legal boundaries between adolescents and adults, which is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time writing about.
CY: Given the ethos of “instant gratification” encouraged by our society now, what are your thoughts around impulse control and risk-taking in adolescents today?
LS: My work on this topic focuses mainly on brain development and its connection to adolescent risk-taking. Adolescents have always been impulsive and interested in novelty and excitement. I think society has changed in ways that allow these inclinations to be expressed in new ways, but I think these are elements of adolescence that have always been with us. We’ve just finished a study of more than 5,000 adolescents and young adults in 11 countries. The similarities are far more striking than the differences.
CY: Social media have allowed adolescents to participate more than ever before in crafting their identity online. How do you think the notion of identity is changing in adolescents today?
LS: I’m not sure that identity is changing, but the ways in which adolescents express their view of themselves is, in the sense that it is much more public. Actually, one thing we don’t know a lot about is whether the process of self-expression through social media has changed the ways in which adolescents come to develop a more coherent sense of identity. It’s an interesting question, but so much research on social media has focused on the potential negatives that we’ve spent far too little attention on the potential positives.
CY: What do you think can be done about cyber bullying, especially in an age where an impulsive decision on social media made in the heat of a moment can have a lasting and even permanent impact?
LS: I’m not sure there’s much that we can do, other than to try to change the culture of schools and peer groups to make this sort of behavior viewed more negatively. There’s research showing that bullying is less likely to occur in schools in which the peer culture is one that frowns on it—and that this may be more important than what teachers or school administrators say. But changing the peer culture is hard. One thing we know from research is that adolescents who are being bullied fare best if they ignore it (as hard as that is to do). Bullies pick on other teenagers in order to get attention. When they don’t get it, they often stop.