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Delaney Owens

Professor Grant

ENG 1001

1 August 2018

Smells Like Teen Stereotypes

Adolescence, the developmental period falling somewhere between age ten and twenty

five, is considered to be one of the greatest periods of physical and psychological development in

a person’s life. This period is also surrounded by negative and potentially harmful stereotypes.

After parents have made it through the ‘terrible twos’, they become familiar with the phrase

“terrible teens”. The onset of double digits brings with it a nasty reputation. Stereotypical

American teenage disposition includes risk-taking, laziness, and moodiness. Adolescents are

known to be technology dependent, defiant, and hard to manage. ​It is also important to note that

stereotypes about adolescents impact different marginalized groups in different ways. ​Many of

these claims have a supposed scientific basis and justification. For example, the stereotype of

moodiness might be justified by spiking hormones. However, stereotypes have not all held up to

recent scientific research. Yet they continue to influence young people through media and

instances in daily life. The perceptions of teenagers that are ingrained in society have become a

self-fulfilling prophecy.

The article “​Understanding Teenage Behavior Problems And Tips To Handle Them”

from the parenting website ​Mom Junction​ states that “​Dealing with a teenager is not easy. No

matter how good a parent you are, and how great your relationship with your children is, you are

likely to face parenting roadblocks when it comes to your teenager.” Like many similar articles,
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it intends to advise parents, but also perpetuates negative ideas about adolescents. According to

the article, “Teenagers are rebellious… They break rules more often. They may refuse to do

chores, and talk back all the time.” The article also explains that mood swings, irrational anger,

lying, dangerous behavior, and rebellion are to be expected from teens. These ideas are common

in discussions about adolescent issues. Articles like these make assumptions and needlessly

create expectations of bad behavior from young people.

In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi

Adichie describes just how impactful stereotypes or ‘single stories’ are. Adichie explains that

Americans often have a single story of Nigerians. They imagine a simple and impoverished

nation, totally detached from Western society. This idea has followed her throughout her life.

Adichie also admits that in her childhood she had a preconceived notion of her houseboy,

viewing him as poor and nothing else. Adichie explains that these single stories divide people

and prevent them from connecting to each other as “human equals.” Compared to stereotypes

about nationality and class, stereotypes about adolescents may seem harmless. However, they

can have negative consequences, both for the adolescent and for society. Stereotypes about

teenagers keep them out of important conversations and can even be reflected in their behavior.

Stereotype threat is a “situational predicament in which individuals are at risk, by dint of

their actions or behaviors, of confirming negative stereotypes about their group” (Inzlicht &

Schmader). It is primarily studied in task-performance environments like test-taking or athletics.

The consequences of stereotype threat include decreased performance in academic testing as well

as non-academic tests, such as driving for women. It can also result in self-sabotaging behaviors

such as decreased preparation for a task. Stereotype threat can also affect the goals, interests, and
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career paths of affected groups. The phenomenon is especially recognizable in environments

where a person is the only member of a certain group. Additionally, stereotype threat occurs

when a person is aware that a stereotyped element of their identity is being considered. For

example, a study showed that test scores of African American students decreased when the

students were asked to indicate their race at the beginning of a test. The factors of stereotype

threat that contribute to these results include anxiety, loss of focus and confidence, lessened

effort, and even physiological responses like change in heart rate (Stroessner & Good).

While stereotype threat is most often discussed in the context of race or gender, it also

applies to the perception and representation of teenagers. By depicting teenagers as defiant and

difficult, we create the potential for adolescents to see those stereotypes as expectations. We

criticize teenagers for being moody and reckless, yet we continue to enforce those stereotypes.

There are exceptions to these rules, including well-known teenagers like Olympic gold medalist

Chloe Kim. But there are also countless teens we known in daily life who are hard-working

students, kind friends, and good role models. Still, regardless of all the mature, intelligent, and

motivated young people we know, the stereotype stands. As Adichie states, the way we portray a

group of people can quickly become a reality: “To create a single story, show a people as one

thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

A recent surge of activism by young people has brought stereotypes about adolescents

into the national spotlight. After the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February of

2018, survivors began a nation-wide movement campaigning for gun control legislation. They

are speaking to news outlets and lawmakers, organizing marches and walkouts, and continuing to

make their voices heard. The movement, led by high school students, has been met with a variety
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of responses. But regardless of political affiliation, many adults have shared the same sentiment

of surprise and even suspicion about how young the leaders of the movement are. I first heard

about the shooting in my fourth period journalism class. My teacher turned on the news to a live

interview with survivor David Hogg. As he spoke, the anchor repeatedly commented on how

eloquent and well-informed he was, for a teenager. As the staff of a high school newspaper, we

were familiar with this response from well-intentioned adults. The response that we found more

shocking was the suspicion. Some coverage of the events discredits the actions of the teen

activists because of their age. Hogg and many of his peers were accused of lying and being

actors or pawns of politicians. While this response was likely politically motivated, it leaned

heavily on existing stereotypes about teenagers.

Stereotypes about adolescents are at the center of a modern scientific debate. The quickly

growing field of adolescent development is experiencing a dynamic shift. Many older studies

about teenagers were satisfied to attribute stereotypical behavior to hormones, reckless

thrill-seeking, or the imbalance theory. The popular theory, as seen in a 2008 report “The

Adolescent Brain” (Casey et al.), states that teenagers take risks because of an imbalance in

development. Put simply, the limbic system, which identifies desires, matures before the

prefrontal cortex, which allows cognitive control. In more recent sources, developmental

scientists are questioning prior beliefs about the ‘teen brain’. One such report is “​Importance of

Investing in Adolescence from a Developmental Science Perspective”, led by Ronald Dahl,

Director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley. In

another report "Beyond stereotypes of adolescent risk taking: Placing the adolescent brain in

developmental context" developmental scientist Daniel Romer and his colleagues challenge the
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imbalance theory with the life-span wisdom model. This theory essentially states that during

adolescence, both cognitive control and the desire for exploration increase rapidly. However,

wisdom is gained more slowly over time (Romer et al). ​This newer research in the field views

adolescence as an essential, and even valuable, stage in development. Risk-taking behavior and

the resulting exploration are necessary steps allowing teenagers to quickly gain wisdom and

experience, which they lack (Romer).

In another article, Dahl expands on the idea that adolescence serves a unique purpose, but

it is often misunderstood: “​The normal developing adolescent brain is not broken, deficient or

impaired. Rather, it is very well adapted to the fundamental task of adolescence: learning, in

particular, exploring, trying new things and learning about the larger social world and one’s

place in it.” The article points out that toddlers fall down over and over as they learn to walk.

These falls can be compared to mistakes that adolescents make. We should not examine them as

failures of the brain. Making mistakes is the purpose of adolescence, not an unpleasant side

effect.

One point stressed by Dahl and his colleagues is the unique capacity of adolescents to be

influenced, with long-term results. This idea can be explained by applying a model of physical

health. Research has shown that the conditions a person experiences during adolescence can

dramatically influence their later adult lives. For example, those who are in adolescence during

periods of famine commonly experience stunted growth in later life. Studies also suggest that

experiencing wartime during adolescence leads to a shortened lifespan. This principle may also

translate to “cognitive, affective, social and motivational domains,” (Dahl et al). This means that

the experiences we have in adolescence shape our later behavior and mental health in ways that
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we may not yet know. This view of adolescence further supports its importance to human

development. It also shows the rare potential of adolescents to absorb positive influences.

The student activism movement promoting gun control is a perfect example of the

characteristics of adolescence being used productively. At the core of the movement is the

connectivity that young people share. Social media instantly became a place for teens to plan

protests, learn about the issue, and amplify their voices. The adolescent brain’s need for respect

and a sense of belonging created a cause that many young people can identify with. The urge to

explore new things and push boundaries continues to push the movement forward. In a speech

one week after the shooting, survivor Delaney Tarr expressed this idea: “Our biggest flaws- our

tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a

normal teenager, these are our strengths.” As Tarr explains, the movement exists because of

teenage qualities, not despite them. Adolescents are full of fresh perspectives, passion, and

resilience. They are equipped with a strong generational connection through the internet. It

should be no surprise that they are the ones pushing for change. Once the negative rhetoric is

removed from adolescent traits, it becomes clear that the teenage brain has tremendous potential.

By viewing adolescence as a window of opportunity, recent studies encourage readers to

set aside stereotypes. Experts present solutions to work with, rather than against, the

developmental processes of adolescence. For example, the increased desire for respect which is

characteristic of adolescence should be considered, especially when working with teens in an

instructional setting. Additionally, the social learning aspects of teenage development should be

utilized. For example, early adolescence is an ideal period to introduce positive role models and

stress values like gender equality. Adults should also create collaborative learning environments
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and opportunities for exploration and productive risk taking (Dahl et al). Parents, teachers, and

policy makers on all levels should consider the developmental science of adolescence. In recent

years, researchers have shifted away from stereotypes that have impacted the study of

adolescence. But these ideas will have to spread beyond the scientific community to truly

influence the lives of young people. What we need is a more positive representation of

adolescence, across movies, parenting blogs, and any discussion about issues that impact young

people.

Stereotypes about adolescents are fundamentally different from stereotypes about other

groups. Every author of every book about taming teens was once a teen themselves. They too,

grew up being affected by preconceptions. So how do these stereotypes continue to fester? To

answer this question, one must look to the values of our culture. Individuality and exploration are

at the core of the American teenage experience. At a neural level, adolescents are undergoing

rapid development with a new capacity for growth. The adolescent brain needs to learn about the

world by experiencing it, and mistakes are often a part of that necessary developmental process.

In a fast-paced world with no tolerance for mistakes, it is no wonder teenage growth is viewed in

a negative light. However, the problem can be lessened by representing young people positively

and fairly and choosing to not pass on stereotypes. As adolescents, we develop our identities and

understanding of the world. We make mistakes and learn how to recover from them. Ultimately,

shouldn’t that be celebrated?


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Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story” ​TED​, 7 Oct. 2009.

www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

Casey, B.j., et al. “The Adolescent Brain.” ​Developmental Review​, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp.

62–77., doi:10.1016/j.dr.2007.08.003.

Dahl, Ronald E., et al. “Importance of Investing in Adolescence from a Developmental Science

Perspective.” ​Nature​, vol. 554, no. 7693, 2018, pp. 441–450., doi:10.1038/nature25770

Dahl, Ronald. “​5 ways we misunderstand adolescents, according to brain science.” ​World

Economic Forum, 1​ 9 Jan. 2018.

www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/we-misunderstand-adolescent-brains-science/

Gongola, Sagari. “Understanding Teenage Behavior Problems And Tips To Handle Them.” ​Mom

Junction.

www.momjunction.com/articles/important-teenage-behavioural-problems-solutions_0010

084/

Romer, Daniel, et al. “Beyond stereotypes of adolescent risk taking: Placing the adolescent brain

in developmental context.” ​Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience​, vol. 27, 2017, pp.

19–34., doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2017.07.007.

Romer, Dan. “Why It's Time to Lay the Stereotype of the 'Teen Brain' to Rest.” ​The
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Conversation​, 15 July 2018,

theconversation.com/why-its-time-to-lay-the-stereotype-of-the-teen-brain-to-rest-85888

Stroessner, Steve and Catherine Good. “Stereotype Threat: An Overview Excerpts and

Adaptations From Reducing Sterotype Threat.org.”

diversity.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/stereotype_threat_overview.pdf