The lives of young people have drastically changed. The typical 18-year-old person in the 18th century was responsible for milking cows and feeding chickens. Currently, the average 18-year-old individual spends time taking selfies or drinking coffee to cram for tests.
In fact, former professor at University of Waterloo Frank A. Fasick, in his “On the ‘Invention’ of Adolescence,” argues that adolescence actually didn’t exist in the past. He proposes that urbanization and industrialization have changed society such that youngsters now focus on education and indulge in a new lifestyle with its own behavioral norms and forms of entertainment, thereby giving birth to the invention, or social construction, of adolescence.
I understand why Fasick and other inventionists believe that adolescence is essentially a social concept characterized by extensive schooling and a new way of living. However, they’re mistaken. Adolescence is actually better regarded as a real and natural phenomenon involving physical and mental growth that takes place during one’s teenage years. As a science student, I’m adamant that the physiological and psychological developments should be considered as the main elements of adolescence, as these changes prepare the youth for survival as adults. Adolescents across cultures, religions, socioeconomic statuses, genders, ethnicities and other identity-determining backgrounds have a particular aspect in common: biological changes. We’re all familiar with the pubertal changes during adolescence. Males develop larger testicles and start to create sperm, while females begin menstruation. Both sexes gain pubic, facial and armpit hair, turn taller and more muscular, alter their vocal ranges, continue bone growth rapidly and so on.
What some of us may not know are the changes we can’t see with the naked eye: the internal developments in the brain. In “Adolescence,” Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, writes that the brain functions via a network made up of cells that communicate through electrical and chemical signals. The part of the network that is responsible for reasoning, abstract thinking and planning is the frontal lobe. Whenever people plan for tomorrow’s agenda or contemplate which presidential candidate is better, they’re using their frontal lobes. Frontal lobes are still developing during adolescence, meaning that teenagers physiologically cannot think in the same way as adults.
Essentially, adolescents are learners. They are learning how to think for themselves and what they should do in practical and social situations, such as how to react when they witness a robbery or what to do when they are peer-pressured to engage in underage drinking. They need guidance to arrive at a mature decision because their reasoning skills are still expanding. In The New York Times, Lisa Damour’s “Gossip: The Best Gift Your Teenager Can Give You” stresses how important it is for parents to serve as advisors to their children during times of unease and treat them as individuals who are capable of reasoning to some extent during discussions about serious matters, such as drug consumption. Parents may be possible advisors, but teachers and other more developed adults can be of assistance to adolescents as well. This is why some schools, including my high school, have guidance counselors. They are there to help students make mature decisions when they may not be able to do so by themselves.
What is the point of all these adolescent developments? From a biological standpoint, the changes during adolescence render oneself more capable physically and mentally so that they can more effectively compete with others for resources, including shelter and sustenance, in order to survive and possibly reproduce. In everyday terms, it translates to adolescence being a period in which people start gaining fundamental abilities to survive independently as grown adults in the world.
Let’s think about it. Without bodily growth, the next generation would be four-foot 20-year-olds who don’t have enough stamina or strength to effectively build bridges, construct skyscrapers or even be strong enough to carry heavy groceries. Without cognitive developments, the next generation would be five- or six-foot 20-year-olds who can’t efficiently run companies, handle relationship issues, enforce political policies or even do math, the topic that many students hate even though it’s the basis for the current technological era. Without both bodily growth and cognitive developments, the next generation might as well be a sign of the impending doom of humanity.
The physiological and psychological enhancements are programmed within DNA, the material that greatly influences who and how we are physically. Since DNA is passed down from generation to generation, adolescence has existed throughout history. Remember the 18th-century adolescent who was busy milking cows? He, she or they also experienced physical and mental improvements; they became stronger and smarter. This means that people from all backgrounds can have similar physiological and psychological developments. To an extent, these developments are a universal marker of adolescence.
Indeed, adolescence should be treated as a natural phenomenon, a phase of biological and mental growth rather than a social invention. Growth during this phase is pivotal to adolescents’ futures. Because youngsters undergo such crucial changes, people should perceive adolescence as a phase of growth and try to ensure proper development into mature and rational adults.