By John Pickrell
The teenager is a uniquely human phenomenon.
Adolescents are known to be moody, insecure, argumentative, angst-ridden, impulsive, impressionable, reckless and rebellious. Teenagers are also characterised by odd sleeping patterns, awkward growth spurts, bullying, acne and slobbish behaviour. So what could be the possible benefit of the teenage phase?
Most other animals – apes and human ancestors included – skip that stage altogether, developing rapidly from infancy to full adulthood. Humans, in contrast, have a very puzzling four-year gap between sexual maturity and prime reproductive age. Anthropologists disagree on when the teenage phase first evolved, but pinpointing that date could help define its purpose.
There are a variety of current explanations for the existence of teenagers. Some believe that we need longer for our large brains to develop. Other explanations suggest that a teenage phase allows kids to learn about complex social behaviour and other difficult skills, or that it is even required to develop coordinated bipedal bodies adapted to travelling long distances.
Scientists once thought that the brain’s internal structure was fixed at the end of childhood, and teenage behaviour was blamed on raging hormones and a lack of experience. Then researchers discovered that the brain undergoes significant changes during adolescence.
According to many recent studies, teen brains really are unique (see interactive graphic). Though many brain areas mature during childhood, others mature later – such as the frontal and parietal lobes, responsible for planning and self-control.
Other studies have shown that teens fail to see the consequences of their actions, and that sudden increases in nerve connectivity in teen brains may make it difficult for teenagers to read social situations and other people’s emotions.
One study in 2004 showed that teens have less brain activity in areas responsible for motivation and risk assessment, perhaps explaining why they are more likely to take part in risky activities such as abusing drugs and alcohol, develop a hard-to-kick smoking habit or indulge in under-age sex.
Teenage pregnancies and rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens are big problems – especially because today’s teen generation is the biggest the world has seen: a 2003 UN report revealed that 1 in 5 people were between 10 and 19, a total of 1.2 billion people.
But not everyone agrees on the best way to tackle the problem. Some believe that comprehensive sex education is the key, while others argue for abstinence only education courses.
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When my life was quickly falling out of my hands and reality wasn't within reach, I felt helpless. I needed to find a way out somehow, someone or something to influence me in a better way by helping me out of the major hole I had dug myself into.
It all began when I moved away from my life in Pennsylvania, and couldn't accept the fact that it was something my parents had to do. I was an emotional mess. I had much anger and no one to vent it on, except my parents, which, most of the time, was pointless. This would just end up being an even bigger mess. So as I began to make friends, I figured why not drown my sorrows in whatever I could possibly find - drugs, alcohol, "fun." I was out on school nights until one or two, planning on not going to school because I thought I had better things to do. As time passed, I began to miss many days of school, causing my grades to fall tremendously. I decided to drop out of the tenth grade. It seemed easier in my eyes, no more waking up at five o'clock - and I could stay out and not feel guilty. I knew somewhat what I was doing; I knew my life was on a downhill slant, and at that time I couldn't do a thing about it.
As my friends from the other side saw what I was doing, they decided to do it too, losing everything they had: respect from everyone, parents, relatives, friends, and teachers. So we went on a fantasy trip, not caring about losing our education or love from people who tried to care. We thought it was great to be on our own until we ran out of money for our adventures.
So, I got a full-time job which didn't last long. I got sick of that too. I couldn't deal with people telling me what I had to do. I rebelled, and got fired. Once again, I didn't care. Then, my friends and I began to get into a lot of mischief, getting in trouble with the police a number of times. Finally, they told me I would be sent to a juvenile institute to get back on track. My friends were in the same predicament. So I went home to try to figure out my mistakes, to try to patch them up. Well, I couldn't - I would just have to move on.
Weeks went by while I stayed home, still out of school. I watched what my friends were getting into, and I couldn't understand why they couldn't see what was happening to them. They were falling apart, just like I was. At that point, I wanted nothing to do with anyone. I needed time to myself, and I wanted my life back to normal.
The second semester of my tenth grade year, I put myself back into school and got a part-time job. I began to do well, still a little on the edge, but I knew it wouldn't be perfect in a day. It took me awhile to get back in the swing of things and live a normal high school life. I give myself credit for doing it on my own. I turned myself around because I knew my lifestyle was wrong and what I was doing was dangerous. I needed time to find myself more than anything, and here I am now, a senior, awaiting graduation. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.