Why are Teenagers Self-absorbed Risk-takers and How Can We Turn This to Their Advantage?

Why are Teenagers Self-absorbed Risk-takers and How Can We Turn This to Their Advantage?

By: Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

“Adolescence isn’t an aberration; it’s a crucial stage of our becoming individual and social human beings.” (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore)

Teenagers: active, powerful, challengers, without fear of failure, ambitious, flexible, curious, creative, cooperative, skilled operators of technology, memorize well, a lot of chatting and laughing, low motivation, selfish, bad manners, not responsible, no planning, get bored easily, depend on SNS, like to be in a group and like to be alone, negative.

These are some examples of Japanese teenage traits provided by a cohort of 29 Japanese teachers at a recent teacher-training workshop. Why are teenagers such a puzzling mix of energy, sincerity, insightfulness, stupidity, irrationality, and despondency? Until recently, it was thought that teenagers behaved in bewildering ways because they were subject to a surge in hormone levels. Adolescence begins with the onset of puberty and this is when hormones begin to affect the physical changes that come with growing into an adult. It is now known, however, that the conflicting traits of the adolescent years are not caused by hormones alone, but by their interaction with a brain that is still developing. The teenage brain is a work in progress, which will not be completed until the individual reaches their mid-twenties. Of course, there are teenagers who seem to be remarkably mature for their age (such as the teenage Adele and New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, to name just two), but the bottom line is that not only parents and junior/senior high school teachers, but also university teachers, need to be aware of this reality and to find ways to work with the developing brains of their students. Even more crucial is the need to let adolescents know what is happening in their brains so that they can understand themselves better.

There are neurological reasons for this turbulent stage of human development, but these have only been recognized in the last 15–20 years, thanks to insights that brain-scanning technology and dedicated experimental research have brought to light. One of these pioneers is Sarah-Jayne Blakemore whose book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain (2018) will provide the springboard for my musings, along with the other sources listed at the end of this piece. While neuroscientists and cognitive scientists are investigating the structure and the workings of the brain, our task as educators is to apply their findings to our curricula and classrooms. Let’s take a brief look at the propensity for a self-absorbed teenage brain to seek the approval of peers and to take risks, and at the relationship between these tendencies. We will then think about how we can apply this new knowledge in our teaching.

Blakemore describes how teenagers are obsessed by their own image and their immediate world, using her own memories and the teenage diary entries of others. Here is one such entry she often quotes, provided by Dinah Hall to the Guardian newspaper in 2013 with the explanation: “There’s nothing like teenage diaries for putting momentous historical events in perspective. This is my entry for 20 July 1969:

I went to arts centre (by myself!) in yellow cords and blouse. Ian was there but he didn’t speak to me. Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who’s apparently got a crush on me. It’s Nicholas I think. UGH.

Man landed on moon.”

According to Blakemore, there are neurological and psychological reasons for this kind of self-absorption among teenagers. They need to start expressing who they are while at the same time learning about who they are, how they are, and how they would like to be, both in their own eyes and those of others. They also need to become independent of their parents and this explains why interacting with friends and maintaining friendships take priority over everything else so much of the time. It is often the factor overriding refusal when alcohol or a cigarette is offered by friends. They know the health risks, but their fear of exclusion drives their decision to accept. The genuinely high levels of anxiety that teenagers experience if they feel excluded from a group have been demonstrated by Blakemore and her team. They used an online game of catch ball designed to make the research participants feel gradually excluded from the game. Both adult and teenage participants felt depression and anxiety at being excluded from the game. However, the levels of depression and anxiety experienced by the teenagers were far higher.

This powerful need for inclusion as well as the approval of their peers also explains why teenagers tend to take greater risks when with peers than when alone. This tendency has also been demonstrated experimentally using a video game in which the participants decide whether to take risks or not as they approach traffic lights. Adults and teenagers take about the same number of risks when performing the task alone. However, when teenagers do this while being watched by several friends, they take about three times as many risks. Adults, on the other hand, are unaffected by the presence of friends.

Here is another puzzle: If teenagers are prone to risk-taking to impress their peers, why are they so reluctant to answer questions in class? Blakemore explains that social pressure can lead to risk-avoidance as well as risk-taking. The fear of looking too stupid or too clever in front of their friends can override the temptation to volunteer an answer.

"Social media provide the means to share and compare their lives with others’."
Amanda Gillis-Furutaka
TT Author

Knowing that teens are neurologically driven to conform and win the approval of their friends explains their obsession with social media, which provide the means to share and compare their lives with others’. Technology enables them to connect instantly, constantly, and ubiquitously with the imaginary audience they crave. So, it should come as no surprise that they are online day and night and take no notice of adult advice to take a break. And it is no surprise that negative attacks can be so devastating to teenage mental health. It was the prevalence of the onset of mental health issues in teenage years that sparked Blakemore’s initial interest in teenage brain development, and this is a very important topic that readers can explore for themselves in Blakemore’s book.

Teenagers are willing to take risks to impress their peers, but how dangerous do they think their actions are, and how do they evaluate the level of risk? Blakemore and her team carried out an experiment to measure the extent to which participants (from 8 to 59 years old) rated situations as risky, and then showed them (fictitious) evaluations made by other adults or teenagers. Whereas children, older teenagers (15–18) and adults were clearly influenced by the evaluations of adults, the 12–14-year-olds were clearly more influenced by the opinions of teenagers. The result was replicated in a second experiment with different but comparable participants. “The results of both studies support the notion that early adolescence is a pivotal phase in which individuals begin to question the authority and experience of adults and place higher value on the opinions of other teenagers than those of adults” (p. 46).

Herein lies a clue for how teachers and teacher trainers can work with these teenage brains. We need to keep in mind that what matters most to adolescents is what their friends and contemporaries think and do. So, rather than provide facts and figures, we should provide reasons for choosing or rejecting certain activities based on social norms and peer influence. An experiment carried out by researchers at Yale and Princeton universities (Paluck, et al., 2016) demonstrated the powerful effect of peer influence in reducing bullying in schools. The students of half of the 56 participating schools (for ages 11–16 years) were randomly assigned to an anti-bullying programme. They were then encouraged to lead anti-bullying campaigns in their schools. One activity was for each student to design their own poster with their photo and name placed next to the slogan they had created. These posters were displayed around the schools. In another activity the students in the programme handed out orange wristbands to students they saw behaving in a friendly way, to act as a visible reward for anti-bullying actions. The results of measures of conflict behavior and bullying taken over the year in both the experimental schools and control schools showed that in the schools where the anti-bullying programme had been implemented and led by students, there was a 30 per cent reduction in reports of student conflict. Moreover, further analysis revealed that when the anti-bullying campaign was led by the more popular students, it had a greater positive effect on overall behaviour. Popular students have great influence on the social norms and behaviour of teenagers in school.

How can teachers harness the ingenuity and energy of their teenage charges and exploit the powerful influence of their peers? Let’s take the Yale and Princeton model as a starting point. First, we should step back from centre-stage and allow teenagers to teach each other. Make activities and learning student-centered. They’ll listen to each other more attentively and credulously than they’ll listen to teachers. A simple example I regularly use when students need to learn new vocabulary is to tell them to prepare 5 (or up to 10) quiz questions of different types from the materials we have been studying (e.g. How do you say “–” in Japanese? How do you say “–” in English? How do you spell “–”? What’s the opposite of “–”? Tell me another words that means the same as “–”) They then test each other in small groups and teach each other the words they don’t yet know.

Second, we can provide initial learning materials with clear instructions for them to explore and build on the information in their own way, especially using online resources, which are readily available to them through their phones. We should be on hand to offer guidance and answer questions, but be unafraid to allow our students to learn and teach each other from their mistakes as well as their successes. We should not be afraid to let the learners set the pace and should not be over concerned about failing to cover every detail in the syllabus. Our students will possibly learn less in terms of quantity, but they will learn deeper and better the things that are meaningful to them.

A third principle is to create classroom activities that involve team effort and friendly competition. Turning the spelling quiz activity described above into a small class competition can work well. Each group chooses a (designated) number of vocabulary items from their pool to test the whole class. So many activities in textbooks, or from our own repertoires, can be turned into simple team competitions once we start planning from a teenager’s perspective! And it is probably a good idea to let students choose their own group members/partners for activities at least some of the time. And as we have learnt, calling on individuals to express an opinion in class is unproductive, but asking for a group opinion will probably work better.

Most important is what all the writers I list below advocate: We need to help adolescents learn about their developing brain. (See also Julia Daley’s piece in this issue). Understanding why they can make bad choices and why they need to spend so much time socializing will help them come to terms with and celebrate their own stage of life.

We also need to share information with teenagers about the very real dangers of drugs, alcohol,and tobacco to their developing brains (Jensen, 2015) to help them to resist the temptation to give in to peer pressure. We need to reassure them that it is only natural that they want to go to sleep later than the rest of the family and wake up later, too (Blakemore, 2018; Jensen, 2015). But we also have to point out gently that while the rest of society still functions on adult time, they may have to try to compromise on this. We also need to spread the word that physical exercise is REALLY GOOD for their physical, mental, and social health. Letting off steam on a pitch or court in a team game helps their brains develop, improves learning, and builds both social relationships and physical stamina (Medina, 2017). When teenagers are given this information, they can start to understand and explain themselves better, and they can also produce stunning creative work to express the intensity of the teenage experience. Do take a look at the video clip of Brainstorm: Islington Community Theatre (Royal Albert Hall, 2014)!

References and Further Reading

Amanda Gillis-Furutaka PhD, program chair of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, is a professor of English at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan. She researches and writes about insights from psychology and neuroscience that can inform our teaching practices and improve the quality of our lives, both inside and outside the classroom.

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