We are going to take a trip back to middle school…hey…stay with me. During this mental voyage, we will not delve into the anxieties and insecurities you may have had at this time. We are going to explore why adolescence is an incredible and necessary period of development. I want you to finish reading this post with a positive outlook on what many consider the most frustrating, uncertain times in their lives.
I want you to think of how you, or more likely adolescents, in general, were described when you were one. What words are used? Commonly, adolescents are categorized as lazy, disorganized, impulsive, emotional, etc. We can all agree that these qualities do contain some truth, but this description tells far less than the full story.
During adolescence, the frontal cortex is in a major state of transition and growth. At the beginning of adolescence, each of us has more neurons and synapses than adults do . Our frontal cortex undergoes a process called pruning, wherein weaker connections are eliminated and thus, connections within and between other brain regions are made more efficient. So, based on the neurobiological processes occurring during this time, it only makes sense that the functionality of this region is compromised. Over the course of adolescence, there is an improvement in working memory, flexible rule use, executive organization, frontal inhibitory regulation as well as mentalization tasks . Many of the skills that allow us to function in a complex social human world are developed during adolescence. Making decisions, concrete and abstract cognitive tasks and putting yourself in someone else’s perspective requires a lot of effort. In addition, a portion of the pre-frontal cortex (a sub-region of the frontal cortex) is important in emotional processing. This is underdeveloped in the adolescent brain and when faced with strong emotional stimuli, there is not a mechanism in place to reappraise their initial, often inaccurate response to this. The adolescent in this situation is left stranded, at the mercy of an unrefined area that has the responsibility of interpreting and providing context for their experience [3,4].
Adolescence is important for proper brain development. Awesome. Now what?
The question now shifts from, “Why do adolescents behave in the way they do?” to “How can adolescents be supported best to ensure that their frontal cortex develops optimally?” Full disclaimer, the current institutions in place for adolescents in much of Western culture are far from tailored to their needs. Middle and high schools are riddled with social toxicity. On the academic side of things, most schools allow for some flexibility at an early age. During this time, our brains are being shaped, pruned and strengthened, by experience . Adolescents crave new experiences and I would argue that this should be nurtured by academic and vocational institutions. The curiosity and passion of an adolescent is unmatched across the lifespan and they have an entire neural network waiting to be shaped by these experiences.
In his 1996 New York Times article, “Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood,” Leon Botstein argues that middle and high school systems as they exist do not effectively serve the needs of developing adolescents. He points to the fact that sexual maturity occurs on average much more quickly than it did when these educational institutions were developed, writing, “An institution intended for children in transition now holds young adults back well beyond the developmental point for which high school was originally designed” . In addition, he also discusses the toxic social construction of most middle and high schools and the artificiality of the environment in which adolescents are expected to grow. One thing that Botstein could not account for at the time of his writing, was the rapid proliferation and infiltration of social media. The factors that make current schools inadequate in supporting the proper social development of adolescents, namely toxicity, artificiality and exclusion, are amplified ten-fold on social media.
Are we negatively impacting the development of adolescents’ brains by isolating them in an environment exclusively containing their peers? Would they be better served interacting with people of all ages that share common interest, and would this allow for a more natural social development that reflects the world they are expected to navigate after school?
We know now from existing literature that our brains do continue to change long after adolescence as they remain plastic to an extent, but the raw truth is that developmental periods are finite for a reason. This should not be a daunting statement, instead, it should push adults to reflect on their own experiences and their existing preconceptions of adolescents. From there, we can re-examine the existing institutions in place to support them and determine what can be added or negated in order to improve these. This discussion is long over-due and if this systemic problem is not faced soon, mounting pressures from proliferating social media and ever-increasing societal expectations will only continue to make existing issues worse. Adolescents today are entering the most complex social environment to navigate in human history. Now, more than ever, they need support. They don’t need excuses for their dysregulated behavior, but guidance; not a rigid, inflexible academic system but novel experiences from which they can draw passion. not excessive sheltering but instruction on how they should properly assess risks and opportunities to take more calculated risks (e.g. skydiving). I’m calling for a major societal and systemic change, but why wouldn’t I be when 8% of adolescents (12-17 years old) suffer from mental illness on average and this has increased from 5.4% prevalence in 2003 .
 Xiao, Z, Zhu, D, Katsuki, F, Qi, XL, Lees, CJ, Bennett, AJ, Salinas, E, Stanford, TR & Constantinidis, C, Age-dependent changes in prefrontal intrinsic connectivity, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 11 (2014) 3853-3858.
 Sapolsky, R, Adolescence; or dude, where’s my frontal cortex, Behave, New York (2017) Penguin Press.
 Yurgelun-Todd, D, Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence, Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 17 (2007) 251-257.
 Moore, WE, Pfeifer, JH, Masten, CL, Mazziotta, JC, Iacoboni, M & Dapretto, M, Facing puberty: associations between pubertal development and neural responses to affective facial displays, Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. (2012) 35-43.
 Botstein, L, Let teen-agers try adulthood, The New York Times (May 17, 1999).
 Division of Human Development and Disabilities, Data and statistics on children’s mental health, Centers for Disease Control, reviewed December 20, 2018.