Teen Views on Adolescence

Teen Views on Adolescence

In the latest feature showcasing Grand Challenges’ Adolescent Lives initiative, Siobhan Morris discovers more about teenagers views on what exactly is meant by the term ‘adolescence’.

Adolescence is commonly viewed as a time of pivotal development, when individuals go through a range of physical and social transitions. But adolescence as a life stage can be ambiguous and unclear, which has led to academic debate around how best to define adolescence. Public health researchers have highlighted the significance of adolescence as a developmental period, suggesting that ‘adolescence’ in developed populations should span the ages of 10 to 24, coinciding with the physical, behavioural, and social changes that occur during this time. But social scientists have shown, mainly through cross-cultural comparisons, that the cut-off point between childhood and adulthood is not always so easily defined by age.

So, what is ‘adolescence’? This was the question Dr Emily Emmott (Teaching Fellow at UCL Anthropology) and Francesca Vaghi (PhD candidate Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education/Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS) posed to 28 teenagers aged 14 to 18 at a workshop held at UCL in June. The event, part of the Grand Challenges supported project, ‘A Time of Change? Harmonising the meaning of “adolescence” between young people and researchers‘, brought together teenagers and researchers to share their views and opinions about what adolescence means to them and address if and how the scientific understanding of adolescence complements or conflicts with their own views and identities. The result was a day of lively conversations and stimulating reflections.

The workshop began with research talks followed by two co-creation activities – making a timeline from childhood to adulthood, and exploring ways to communicate research findings to young people. The key findings (outlined below) can be grouped under two themes: meanings of adolescence and communicating adolescence.

In defining the meaning of adolescence, the young people talked about adolescence as a period of increasing freedom and independence and concurrently, as a time of exploration and self-discovery. Alongside such positives, however, participants also characterised adolescence as an ‘awkward’ time filled with uncertainties and contradictions around what to do and how to act. As one participant aged 17 noted, “The bad thing about being my age is being expected to act like an adult at college/work, but being treated like a child at home.”

Overall, teens in the workshop generally recognised both the positives and negatives of adolescence and it was not viewed as an inherently negative stage in life – contrary to societal stereotypes, which often focus on adolescence as a time of upheaval and stress. The participants also thought that age mattered less than big life transitions in determining the end of childhood, with one participant succinctly noting, “Forget about age! Age isn’t accurate enough.”

Regarding how to best communicate academic research on adolescence, the teenagers came up with a range of ideas and devised a communications plan with a clickbait headline. They agreed that there is a need for research findings to be communicated to both young and older people and felt that engaging adults in conversations about younger people’s experiences was helpful in countering stereotypes. Alongside this, the workshop also explored if the words used by researchers to categorise life stages and adolescence were meaningful for teenagers. Participants commented that the term ‘adolescent’ sounded formal, but were emphatic in noting that they did not want to be termed ‘young people’! This was felt to be an ambiguous phrase.

How then should researchers define and talk about this pivotal life stage? The project demonstrated that adolescence is about development and transitions. In that sense, a rigid age-range of adolescence is likely to conflict with how adolescents themselves view adolescence. As Francesca Vaghi comments, “One of the main lessons learnt was that there is ample potential for researchers and young people to co-create data in academic enquiry. Conducting research with, rather than about, participants can help us refine questions and go in directions we might not have thought of exploring, such as challenging the over-emphasis on teenagers’ risk-taking behaviours that predominates in much of the literature about adolescent health. Equally, participants’ insights were very helpful in showing novel avenues through which we can disseminate findings to the wider public, which is an increasingly urgent matter to address as we endeavour for research to have an impact beyond academia.”

In addition, the workshop findings indicate researchers need to focus on the positives as well the negatives of adolescence – examining the benefits, not just the risks. As one of the young people noted, “We spend most of our lives as adults, so it’s important to understand what happens before, and how it impacts adulthood.”

The project’s ultimate aim, however, was to reflect what the young people said, spreading their voices into the research community and beyond. The work provides an example of how teenagers can be involved as partners rather than the subjects of research, showing how to communicate research in innovative ways to wider, and younger, audiences. As Dr Emily Emmott noted, “As a researcher, participation activities are brilliant as they help you understand and challenge your preconceptions. There is also something very rewarding and exciting about coming up with ideas together with participants.We believe adolescents are experts of adolescence, and their voices are worth listening to.”

This project was also supported by Larissa Pople and Dr Alex Turner from The Children’s Society, Cliff Manning from Parent Zone, and Cait Griffin from UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.” The project’s findings report can be accessed here. Further information about the project is available on the Grand Challenges website.