All parents and teachers (of a certain age) can relate with Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ in the comedy sketch show Kevin and Perry during the 1990s. Those of us ‘Parenting’ our own teenagers (capital ‘P’), and those of us who ‘parent’ (loco parentis) when working with these teenagers (lowercase ‘p’), are only too familiar with the absurdity of teenagers’ behaviour(s), frequent paroxysms, and nonsensical nuances.
It always makes me chuckle when I watch one particular scene in Enfield’s Keven and Perry Go Large film, set on the island of Ibiza, where Kevin and Perry dream big of becoming ‘superstar DJs’.
About an hour in, Kevin has fallen out with Perry, so he returns to his parents’ apartment, upset, snotty and feeling pretty pathetic. Unusually, Kevin is now polite, penitent and a more agreeable version of his former self as he accepts his parents’ invitation to join them for dinner (without nasty Perry). However, before this sojourn at the dinner table can take effect, Perry returns, apologises and makes up with Kevin, a redemption that sees Kevin rip off his dad’s tie, utter some inarticulate nonsense, remind his parents he’s ‘not their slave’, and he and Perry meander off together – sycophants to all Ibiza has to offer.
This scene, the one of peer-Perry influence, is significant when discussing adolescent behaviour at home and at school.
The stoplight test
A leading authority on psychological development during adolescence, Dr. Laurence Steinberg (and colleagues) first reported the use of the ‘stoplight test’ (2005) to research the effects of peer influence during adolescents.
The task is to drive a simulator around a racetrack. No, not a real car, or real track for that matter. I don’t trust my own teenagers with Cornflakes, let alone my Renault Clio.
The object of Steinberg’s task is to get around the track in the fastest time possible, navigating various hazards such as a red light appearing and/or a pedestrian wandering into the road. And there are only two conditions. Firstly, teenagers, young adults and older adults are all solo when they drive around the track. In the second condition, the participants are asked to bring a couple of friends to watch them hit the gas.
Need I continue?
Disturbing! Expected, but disturbing.
During the first condition, there are “no differences” between the age groups in the number of risks they take. During the second condition, however, the level of risk-taking is “significantly higher” in the adolescent group of drivers.
Adolescence, peer influence and risk-taking
The results show that, when in a social situation, young people are more likely to take risks than they would if they were on their own. Moreover, these results are congruent with information provided by insurance companies:
“If a comparison is made between traffic accidents in the under-25 age group and accidents involving older drivers, the same result becomes apparent.”
(I’m indebted to Dr John Coleman and his book The Teacher and The Teenage Brain, 2021, for the above ‘stoplight test’ explanation and analysis – a lot of which has been directly used in the aforementioned.)
Just as Perry influenced Kevin’s recalcitrance… just as the ‘friends’ in the simulator influenced the teenagers’ recklessness, and just as the tragic statistics from insurance companies show, the teenage brain is especially susceptible to peer influence and risk-taking. In a lot of respects, teenage behaviour is ‘so unfair’ because the brain’s need for speed drives absurd behaviours resulting in, as we’ve seen, a recrudescence of fateful consequences.
Psychological development during adolescence
Fundamentally, the brain matures from back to front. The amygdala (deep within the brain, towards the back) is responsible for emotional behaviour and motivation and this generally matures before the prefrontal cortex at the front, which is responsible for (can you guess?)… yes, the coordination of personality expression, decision making and, here it is: moderating social behaviour.
In other words, our grumpy and bewailing teenagers are flying around the place (our homes and schools) with an unqualified pilot. And, to add insult to injury, their brains are actually shrinking (in grey matter) by about 17% to account for the increase in neurons and connectivity that happens during puberty (this restructuring of the brain starts in puberty but continues long after).
Thus, teenagers’ brains are subject to major restructuring, and it seems they are evolutionary primed to take risks: scale the school walls, put a condom over a teacher’s computer mouse (yes, this has happened to me), vape in the toilets etc.
But this is also fundamental for their development (even ‘condom-gate’, yes).
It’s just a case of shifting our perspective. Can we not see these behaviours as ‘experimentation’ rather than ‘risk-taking’? The brain, at this age, must seek out new experiences if it is to mature: apply for a job interview, overcome challenges at school, dare I say it, but, yes, develop healthy relationships with partners and use condoms for their intended purpose(s).
So, yes, the behaviour of teenagers is ‘so unfair!’ Especially so when we adults suggest they are ‘in control’.
Because a lot of the time, they’re not.
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