Whatever their foibles — door-slamming, grunting, excessive Snapchatting — teenagers are right about one thing: nobody understands them. This umbra of non-comprehension takes in not just parents, but doctors, psychologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, legal experts and educators.


  There is surprisingly scant scientific research about the hazy period between childhood and adulthood in which adolescents exist. As an editorial in the journal Nature pointed out this month: “A modern healthcare system without a focus on the unique challenges of paediatrics or geriatrics would be unthinkable, yet there is no similar effort on behalf of adolescents.”


  The term adolescence stems from the Latin adolescere, meaning “to grow up” but, in many other contexts, it eludes easy definition. The World Health Organization puts adolescence between the ages of 10 and 19, with other categories jostling within that complex territory. The UN defines a youth as aged 15-24, a genre overlapping with “child” (under 18) and the generic “young people” (10-24).


  It should not surprise us, then, that there is great variation the world over — and even within countries — in the ages at which the young are entrusted with making adult decisions. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor, writes: “A society that tries 12-year-olds who commit serious crimes as adults because they’re mature enough to ‘know better’ but prohibits 20-year-olds from buying alcohol because they are too immature to handle it, is deeply confused about how to treat people in this age range.”

  因此,我们对此就不应感到意外了:全世界(甚至各国内部)对于年轻人有能力做出成人决定的最低年龄界定存在巨大差异。心理学教授劳伦斯?斯坦伯格(Laurence Steinberg)写道:“我们把一位犯下严重罪行的12岁年轻人当作成年人来审讯,因为他们已足够成熟,应该‘知道什么事情不能做’了;与此同时,我们禁止20岁的人买酒,因为他们还不够成熟,无法驾驭酒精:这样一个社会对于如何对待这个年龄区间的人是深感困惑的。”

  Biology provides an obvious pointer. Adolescence is thought to begin with the onset of puberty (sexual development), but patterns of puberty vary around the world — and within countries — over time. One study shows that in the mid-19th century, girls in developed countries had their first period at about 15 or 16 years old. By 2000, this had dropped to below 13, a trend that has been attributed to better nutrition and healthcare. Puberty also occurs earlier in boys. Childhood obesity is thought to be an accelerating factor.


  Flowering bodies, however, are governed by childish brains. Prof Steinberg points out that the young brain continues maturing into the mid-20s. Neurodevelopmental changes depend partly on hormones and can drive pleasure-seeking, risky and impulsive behaviour. Accordingly, Professor Steinberg extends adolescence’s dominion to between the ages of 10 and 25.


  By then, of course, young people are already notching up the social milestones of adulthood: driving, voting, working, living independently, enlisting in the military, drinking, buying guns, marrying and becoming parents. Society will have long sexualised them. And for the digitally connected, the mis-steps of youth are today captured, shared and archived in perpetuity. That collision of adolescent brains with adult norms might underlie some of the darker statistics relating to young people. The leading causes of adolescent death are, respectively, road accidents, HIV and suicide.


  Adolescent health also deserves specific contemplation because the habits of youth can become the millstones of adulthood: teens who smoke cannabis or nicotine, or who abuse alcohol, often become hooked for life. Mental health issues tend to surface early in adulthood but afflicted adolescents are mostly diagnosed on the basis of adult criteria and treated with drugs intended for older patients. When it comes to understanding adolescents, it is adults who need to grow up.








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