Why Teens Act Like Teens


Feb. 19, 2005 -- -- When it comes to pop culture, hit music, electronics, fashion trends, celebrity-doings, sex and partying. (whew) most of you, American teenagers, are "ppssssttt"... sizzlin' hot. But if the subject is say, American freedoms, world history or current events, many of you all are clueless. Come on. True dat.

In the last year, I visited 30 high schools in 20 cities all over the country and probably talked to nearly 5,000 teenagers. ABC News gave me this fabulous opportunity to try to make a difference in your generation, because studies were showing that you don't care about current events. My challenge has been to persuade you of the necessity of reading, watching and/or listening to the news.

I love the news. I want to know what's happening all the time. When I was in high school I chose journalism as a career because I felt and still feel that it is critically important for citizens in a democratic and free society to be informed. Working with juniors and seniors has been an uphill battle, even though many of them will soon be on their own. I get through to some of you, but most of you probably leave my presentations thinking I'm nuts. Who does this "old woman" think she is, trying to make you care about "America's place in the world" when you don't even know whether you're going to "hook up" on Saturday night.

I can feel your disinterest. Sometimes I want to throw up my hands, grab my hair and shout in exasperation: "TEENAGERS!!

But now, there may be some answers. Scientific research may explain once and for all, why teenagers do the things they do. Why some of you make your parents and teachers crazy. Why many of you engage in risky behaviors, experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol, drive recklessly, develop frequent mood swings, disrespect authority, and seem totally absorbed with yourselves.

When I began meeting you in your schools, I was reminded of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. I am the little girl with the basket of goodies looking at you dressed in Grandma's nightclothes. I want to say, like Li'l Red, "What big eyes you have." And I imagine your saying, "The better to see you."

"What strong legs you have." "The better to run fast," you respond proudly.

Since most of you have reached your adult size, I could comment, "And what big brains you have." You might be quick to say, "The better to think with."

Whoa! Back up, little lady. Not so fast, little man.

Your brains may be big, but scientists now say they are not fully developed. Guess what? They won't be "grown up" brains until you're close to 25 years old!

The research project is directed by Dr. Jay Giedd, at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute for Mental Health, in Bethesda, Md.

Since 1991, Giedd and his colleagues have been charting the brains of 1,000 young volunteers, starting at age 13 and continuing into their 20s. You've heard of MRIs? Magnetic Resonance Imaging? They slide your body into a metal drum-like structure and take images of the deepest recesses of parts of the body. Every year, the MRIs showed that the subjects' brains were different, as more and more regions continued to develop. Now here's the good part. Among the last parts of the brain to mature is something called, the prefrontal cortex. That's the area right behind your forehead. It's the part of your brain that is responsible for planning, judgment and self-control.

Now that we have an explanation of why you may do the crazy things you do, nobody is sure how best to use the information. Why can you drive a car at 16? What about age 18 makes you "of age," an adult? You can vote and fight for your country in a war, but most states say you must be 21 to legally buy alcohol. Maybe society should question some of these age decisions and our own assumptions about who can do what and when.

I do know I won't be upset with the teenagers I meet from now on. I just have to keep in mind that while you look grown up, your brains have not yet caught up with your bodies. The best thing is knowing that someday they will.

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