Americans’ grotesque compulsion to trash their kids resurfaced in recent media alarms of a “middle-school sexual revolution.” Has anyone presented evidence of more sex between pubescent boys and girls? Not a shred.
In fact the latest (2001) figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that births, abortions and sexually transmitted infections among 10- to 14-year-olds have fallen to 30- to 50-year lows. This is no thanks to older teenage and adult men, who cause most of what we call “middle-school sex.”
But forget facts. What would Oprah, USA Today, “values” politicians, sex-education combatants, and teen-risk psychologists like Lynn Ponton (who confessed to having sex as a teenager by her parents’ Christmas tree) do without seventh-grade sluts to bewail?
Anyway, do you know why youngsters are having rampant sex (even if they aren’t)? Because their little noggins can’t think. Just as scientists of 1902 declared blacks, women and immigrants innately brainless, 2002 experts blame teenage misbehaviors on addled cerebral cortexes. Neurobiologist Richard Restak’s book, The Secret Life of the Brain, inspired a silly PBS episode proclaiming, “For the first time, scientists can offer an explanation for what parents already know: Adolescence is a time of roiling emotions and poor judgment.”
Science? Hardly. A five-decade University of Wisconsin study found that scientists miraculously pronounce teenagers “capable and adultlike” when adolescents are needed for wars and economic booms, but “immature and slow to develop” during peacetime and economic recessions. Obsequious scientists who excuse treating youth as mere commodities reflect Americans’ larger anti-youth prejudices.
Restak and his colleagues certainly dislike teenagers, branding them “difficult,” “unpredictable” and “moody,” while suffering “biological tumult,” “impulsiveness” and “disregard for consequences.” Adults, however, represent “the culmination of human brain development”: “mature,” “likable,” and “courteous.” After indulging such self-flattering hooey, scientists deploy PowerPoint brain scans to “explain” youth phenomena that don’t exist (“adolescent risk-taking,” “teenage rebellion,” “storm and stress”) or are direct reflections of adult behavior (“youth violence,” “middle-school sex”).
Realistically, it doesn’t matter whether teens cogitate with their adenoids. What matters is how they act. True, teens often act like idiots (compared with perfect standards of reasoning). But compared with the adults around them, teens aren’t so bad.
Contrary to popular claims that teenagers perpetrate violence, AIDS and addiction simply because they’re teenagers, statistics show that youth risks vary widely and are far more influenced by social class, family and adult behaviors than by anything attributable to adolescent age.
“Decision-making for teenagers is no different than decision-making for adults,” Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer concluded after examining 30,000 subjects and hundreds of studies over four decades. “Minors aged 14 were found to demonstrate a level of competency equivalent to that of adults” in standard cognitive measures, reported a typical Child Development study. Carnegie Mellon University researchers reviewed 100 studies and found adolescents actually harbor fewer delusions of invulnerability than adults do.
But who cares? The crazed-teen myth is politically useful. In defending the juvenile justice system, for example, Kim Taylor-Thompson of the Brennan Center branded adolescents innately incompetent; Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute (for which I recently worked as a consultant) called all youth reckless and amoral; and Steven Drizin of Northwestern University vilified teens everywhere as hair-trigger mob killers.
This retreat into long-debunked bio-junk raises the opposite question: Are adult brains inherently incapable of new ideas? As educator Jeffrey Moran (“Teaching Sex”) and sociologist Craig Reinarman (“Crack in America”) document, sex-ed and drug wars repeat the same clueless squabbles decade after decade.
Instead of belittling teenage brains as undeveloped adult brains, Restak’s findings really show that adult brains are atrophied adolescent brains. After all, youths think more flexibly and can reform unhealthy habits, while adults remain mired in destructive ruts.
Deploring “unsubstantiated claims about the incompetence of adolescents,” Carnegie Mellon researchers instead suggest scrutinizing the “cognitive and motivational factors that promote [adults’] harsh view of adolescents.” Using crude stereotypes to deny teenage individuality, score easy political points and uphold whatever official expediency is fashionable do not epitomize higher-order adult thinking.
Mike Males, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice senior researcher, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.