Teens’ brains are to blame for lack of social distancing
When the world began to shelter in place, the news was filled with accounts of groups of teenagers hanging out on the beach and being scolded for their selfishness. Adults told them to grow up and use good judgment and stop being reckless.
But these lectures were utterly ineffective. Even after one spring breaker’s infamous declaration that he wasn’t going to let COVID-19 stop him from partying, and the internet backlash that followed, college students were still going to parties and flouting their recklessness on Twitter with the hashtag #boomerremover.
Now that many universities are considering postponing a return to campus until 2021, this problem has returned to the front burner. Why can’t these young adults simply follow the rules like everyone else? As experts in neuroscience and the law, my colleagues and I urge you not to judge these youths too harshly. Their brains are very much to blame.
Thirty years of advances in cognitive psychology and brain imaging have allowed us to peer into the thinking brains of adolescents and better understand the neurobiology underpinning the stark differences between adolescent and adult decision-making. The research shows that brain development occurs in stages: The areas of the brain responsible for basic drives and reward-seeking behavior mature first, before the areas controlling more complex actions like impulse control, planning and complex reasoning. The latter area, called the prefrontal cortex, is not yet fully developed in adolescence. In fact, it doesn’t finish developing until around the mid-20s.
These neurobiological immaturities translate into what grownups consider “risky” behaviors, including sensation seeking, impulsivity and sensitivity to rewards (like money or novelty). Adolescents are also uniquely susceptible to peer influence, so it’s not surprising that teenagers’ most egregious violations have been things like trips to the beach for spring break.
To be clear, this exploratory instinct and corresponding risky behavior is normal, even necessary. Adolescents are programmed to seek independence. Pushing limits and taking risks are the evolutionary way in which they master these challenges. Blaming teenagers for their illicit socializing is like faulting a bird for leaving the nest – it runs counter to a basic biological imperative. But ignoring this risky behavior poses a grave threat to themselves and the rest of us.
What can we do? Here is the good news. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that the self-control of teens and young adults is not absent; it is just very context dependent. When adolescents are with their peers or in an exciting or high-stakes situation – what neuroscientists call a “hot” scenario – they tend to make spur-of-the-moment, shortsighted decisions. But in “cold” scenarios, away from peers, in a low pressure environment, they can make appropriate and often adult-like risk calculations.
Teenagers also process risk information differently when it is described rather than experienced, making classroom- like delivery of information less effective. Adolescent decision-making is more impulsive and habitual than the more abstract “model based” processes used by adults and relies heavily on experiential learning. Because nobody has entered into the COVID-19 pandemic with a rich experience base, adolescents might be especially prone to resist instructions from others and instead test out different responses themselves. In light of this bias against secondhand information, it might be prudent to have necessary public health messaging conveyed by prominent public figures admired by teens and young adults.
The best interventions to diminish risky adolescent behaviors are those that take full advantage of their desires for peer respect and social status. An adult scolding that treats emerging adults as children undermines both of these imperatives. The most effective tools for recruiting this group do just the opposite: They make young people feel worthy of respect and admiration. How? By explicitly tapping into their knowledge and inviting them to discover the meaning of important issues for their own lives.
Teenagers want to lead and join movements that demonstrate their value and support emerging autonomy. This has been used to remarkable effect in teen anti-smoking campaigns, where refusing to smoke became a cool and rebellious anti-establishment statement against corporate greed and cynicism. COVID-19 social messaging can do the same, by tapping into a potential teen army of social distancing advocates, mobilizing their outrage at hapless governmental responses, capitalizing on their willingness to step up in a leadership vacuum, and turning the tables on blameworthy adults – who have no neurobiological cover for their obstinacy.
Finally, social media should be aggressively harnessed to provide alternatives to physical groupings of teenagers. Across the nation, middle schools, high schools, colleges, athletic teams and other affiliative groups should be proactively constructing and inviting teens into virtual opportunities to connect with peers online. You can see these efforts to socialize popping up organically in feel-good stories about virtual happy hours and musical performances from balconies, and these might serve as a model.
The bottom line from adolescent neuroscience is that teens and young adults can and will listen to health warnings – but only if we send those messages the right way.
Dr. Judith G. Edersheim is the founding co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.