Professor Laurence Steinberg says adolescence should be conceived of as lasting from puberty to the early 20s. His book Age of Opportunity – Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence makes the case that for all the current focus on the growth that occurs between ages zero to three, ages 12 to 25 may be just as important for shaping the future of individuals and society.
This information sheds light on why risky behavior, especially with alcohol and drugs, is prevalent among adolescents. This in turn explains how “just say no” style prevention methods just don’t work with youth.
From an interview with Dr. Steinberg on NPR:
Q: You explain that adolescent brains are more sensitive to the “dopamine squirts” that come from rewards, be they sex, drugs, candy or money. This, combined with less-developed inhibition, is what makes them more likely to seek out challenges, novelty — in a word, risk.
A: We’re hard-wired to be risk-takers as adolescents. The dark side of this is why societies from ours to ISIL recruit people this age to do the dirty work. [Young adults are] more interested in the immediate rewards than the long term consequences.
Q: You say that so-called character education, abstinence education or drug education programs like DARE, haven’t been shown to be effective. Because it’s not that adolescents don’t intellectually understand the impact of this behavior, it’s that they are too compelled by the rewards.
A: Exactly. But the other side of this is, let’s let kids satisfy those urges in pro-social ways. We want them to sign up for that course where they’re not guaranteed to get As, to try out for the school play, or even ask that person out.
Steinberg urges more structured activities for adolescence, both inside and outside of school. As he says:
If kids are spending those hours unstructured and unsupervised, it’s a recipe for experimenting with sex, drugs and delinquency. We know that kids are deterred when they’re in settings with adults around.
- Laurence Steinberg website
- Q&A: Plumbing The Mysteries Of The Teenage Brain – NPR
- Temple psychologist redefines adolescence as an ‘Age of Opportunity’ – Temple University