A discussion with Dr. Abigail Norfleet James

By Marcia Banks

Gendered Education Consultant

A teaser for viewing the video:

Why is adolescence such a critical period of development?

Adolescence is a time in life when there is rapid neurological growth, followed by pruning where gray matter tends to thin out and white matter generally increases in volume. Brain growth is not linear and the rapid changes in certain parts of the brain of the adolescent, in parts that tap into social connections, helps to explain the heightened need for peer interaction and an important need for peer acceptance, a need to feel valued in a same age community.

Adolescence represents a sensitive period for social interactions at a time where they are very responsive to cues from age mates.

Adolescents are known for their heightened emotional sensitivity and the malleability of their brain may make them vulnerable to engage in activities that may lead to harmful behaviors. Yet, when the social environment is healthy, that same neural circuity can promote positive peer influence and behaviors.

Depression in adolescents? Girls, in particular?

If adolescents are permitted to contribute to society in a very real and concrete way, these real contributions may help them guard against depression and anxiety. High quality peer relationships seem to protect the adolescent against mental health problems.

Misinformation and/or propaganda?

Adolescents are ripe targets for fake news and being a 14-year-old is a critical time to being swayed and easily persuaded with propaganda. Adolescents tend to drill down in the same piece for information, being subject to algorithms such as found in Google or YouTube, sites that know what the adolescent is looking at and provide more of the same. If the adolescent continues to go deeper and deeper into the same sort of information, then it is very easy to get caught up with misleading information or information that may be harmful.

What can we do?

We can teach adolescents to be critical thinkers, to compare information from different kinds of sites, to collect as much evidence as one can from different sources, to evaluate and think critically about the messages received, read, and accessed. Adolescents are very capable of doing this if guided and taught the skills to help judge the reliability and credibility of news and information.

Adolescents need to feel a part of their school, to feel that the school provides a place where they belong and where they can be a part of a community. Adolescents need the freedom to make their own choices and for adults to respect their need for social input, respect their thoughts and beliefs. With earned respect from the adult, the adult can help them find solid evidence for their beliefs, versus telling them that they are wrong.

We can optimize what we know about the adolescent brain to create social contexts and environments that provide enriching experiences for adolescents.