In the past, we’ve thought of adolescence as one block of time between 13 and 18-years-old when kids participate in risky and angsty behavior. New research over the last decade has shown us that adolescence is actually more complicated than that and that there are actually a couple distinct phases of adolescent development. What’s more, the phase of “adolescence” has now been extended to a person’s early 20s.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, consolidates and analyzes all this new research in his new book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, released last month by Mariner books. Steinberg argues that the new science can help us understand teens better, and change the way we educate and support them as they mature. Hippo’s Science and Medicine editor, Jenny Chen, sat down to talk to Dr. Steinberg about adolescent brain development, our high school education system, and raising the driving age.


JC: Why do you call your book The Age of Opportunity?

LS: We’ve recently discovered that the brain is actually very plastic during adolescence, which should force us rethink our previous ideas of adolescence as something “to be survived” and instead think of it as a time period of great learning.


JC: How has our knowledge about adolescent brain development changed over the years?

LS: Because brain imaging is so advanced, we can now track brain development in vivo. We now know that brain development continues far longer than anyone had suspected. One of the new findings is that the brain is not done developing even at 18 years old. In fact, there’s still development going on in during the 20s.

The second finding is that there are a couple of brain systems developing along different timetables. One of the systems regulates how we respond to rewards and the other system governs self-regulation and self control. The system that governs rewards is much more easily aroused in early adolescence—that’s when you see a sharp increase in sensation and reward seeking. Greater activation than you see either before or after. At the same time, the system that governs self-regulation and self control is not fully mature yet. This is why you see a lot of risk-taking, mental health problems during early adolescence. In the past, I don’t think people were even conceptualizing brain development in adolescence this way.

But then during late adolescence and young adulthood, our self-regulation system matures, which allows us to be in better control of our impulses. This is the result of improved connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions, which isn’t something people were talking about five years ago.

And the last important discovery, of course, is adolescent brain plasticity.


JC: What are the implications of this new research for the way we treat teens in society?

LS: One of the implications has to do with the legal system and the way it treats adolescents. There’s a lot of rumbling now about how we should treat young adults under the law. One idea is that if people are not yet fully mature at this age maybe we shouldn’t have the same standards of criminal responsibility.

Other questions include: if the self-control system takes longer to develop, should the driving age be raised from 16 to 18? Should adolescents be able to make autonomous medical decisions?  


JC: Does the new research have any implications for the way we teach teens in schools?

LC: Yes. We should be thinking a little harder about what experiences we provide in the schools. As educators we have to make schools more challenging and interesting for kids. We can see the deficiencies in our high schools by comparing the performance to other countries and by comparing them to elementary schools. Internationally we’re lagging, but only at the high school level—our elementary schools are doing great.

You always hear from teens about how boring school is. It seems like such a shame because this is a time of brain plasticity. We should probably make high school more challenging and demanding, I know this goes counter to a lot of concerns that we’re stressing kids out, I think we’re stressing kids out in the wrong way. They’re not getting enough opportunities to engage in activities that are challenging novel and interesting. Instead we tend to be piling on more of the same.


JC: What are some takeaways for parents?

LS: One takeaway is that while your kid’s self-regulation system is still developing, you’re going to have to be there and provide some of that self-control strength that kids don’t necessarily have. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t let them do anything independently, but you should know that they are vulnerable to making bad decisions. The same teen you see doing very well in social studies may not make great decisions when she’s with her friends or when she’s emotionally upset. Studies have shown that peers can affect teen decision-making even when those peers are in a different room. Understanding the way the brain works helps parents be more patient.


JC: Why is this an important time to be looking at adolescent brain development?

LS: It’s an important time particularly in the U.S. because by a lot of measures, our kids are not doing as well as they could be or should be. American high school students lead the world in unprotected sex, binge drinking, obesity, violence. Maybe if we think differently about adolescents and the way their brains develop, we can have more effective interventions.


Further Reading:

Frances E. Jensen. 2015. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Harper.

Daniel J. Segal. 2015. Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Tarcher.

Florida State University. “Inside the teenage brain: New studies explain risky behavior.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2014.

Featured Image via Walls

About the Authors

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Science Editor

Jenny Chen is an award-winning science journalist and multimedia producer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Reader’s Digest, Shape, Vice, and many more. In 2014 she co-produced a radio story on higher level math with a grant from PRX that was aired on NPR members stations across the country. That same year she received a grant from the D.C. Humanities Council to produce a radio documentary series on growing up mixed race in Washington, D.C. Jenny has also received numerous fellowships and awards to cover health, aging, minority issues, and climate change. She has spoken about journalism and the role of ethnic media at the Smithsonian Folklife festival. In another life, she has also had a play produced at Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center. Why I love working for Hippo: Sharing knowledge to make the world just a little bigger. My favorite academic work: The Search For Night - one of the most poetic pieces of science writing I've read recently. In another life, I’d be a: A dancer. Aside from the mighty hippo, my favorite animal is the: Jaguar - rawr.

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Professor of Psychology at Temple University

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D. is a Distinguished University Professor and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University.