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How Stereotypes About Teens Cause Harm

Negative preconceptions about teens create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Key points

  • Negative stereotypes about teenagers impact teens' self-conceptions and beliefs about normative behaviors.
  • Teenagers endorsing negative stereotypes about themselves engage in more risk-taking.
  • Teenagers endorsing negative stereotypes about themselves experience brain changes associated with reduced cognitive control.

We’ve all heard the stereotypes that teenagers are rebellious, troublemaking, or lazy. To some extent, this is true. Adolescents, whose brains and bodies are still developing, need more sleep than the rest of us, and are neurologically more sensitive to reward and less sensitive to risk than both adults and younger children (Carskadon, 1990; Duell et al., 2016). Yet, negative stereotypes about teenagers that are exaggerated by the media (à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Mean Girls) may turn delinquent behavior during adolescence into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studying Stereotypes

In a three-year longitudinal study titled Youth’s Conceptions of Adolescence Predict Longitudinal Changes in Prefrontal Cortex Activation and Risk Taking During Adolescence, researchers found that negative stereotypes about adolescent behavior predict not only future risk-taking, but also neurological changes impacting self-regulation (Qu et al., 2018).

In year one, researchers surveyed 22 seventh-graders on their conceptions of adolescent behavior by asking whether statements such as “care little about fulfilling family obligations” and “work hard to meet parents’ expectations” were more, less, or equally true about teenagers as compared to younger children. To ensure that results were not biased by poor family relationships, researchers also collected data on parent-child relationship quality, and controlled for these variables.

Risk-Taking and Cognitive Control

In years two and three, participants returned to have their brains scanned and undergo cognitive testing. Each year, the teens participated in a “Go/NoGo task” in the fMRI scanner. Participants were told to press “Go” as fast as possible when a letter pops up on the screen, but to not press go if that letter is “X.” The success or failure rate of the task measures participants’ self-regulation capabilities (known as “cognitive control”) and brain activation is also measured while participants engage in cognitive control.

Each year, the teens also reported on their risk-taking behavior by rating the truth or falsity of statements such as “I hang around with peers who get in trouble.”

Stereotypes Impact Teenaged Risk-Taking

Researchers found that teens who endorsed more negative stereotypes of adolescence engaged in more risk-taking behaviors during the transition from middle to high school, suggesting a self-fulfilling prophecy of behavior. These associations remained true even after controlling for a host of other variables including parent relationship quality, gender, pubertal status, and socioeconomic status.

Stereotypes Impact Teenaged Brains

Moreover, teens who endorsed more negative stereotypes also had higher brain activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) during NoGo trials, indicating more effort or difficulty associated with cognitive control. Prior research has found that increased VLPFC activity during cognitive control is also associated with increased risk-taking during adolescence (Qu et al., 2015).

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

These findings suggest that preconceptions about adolescence held by adolescents themselves may act as a two-step self-fulfilling prophecy (Buchanan & Hughes, 2009; Qu et al., 2018). Firstly, negative stereotypes about teenagers perpetuated by media, family, and peer groups may shape adolescents’ understanding of what behavior is normal, and may make them more likely to act out negative stereotypes such as rebelliousness. Secondly, if impulsive behavior becomes the norm, developing teenage brains may not exercise cognitive control, making it neurologically more difficult to engage in future self-regulation.

The message is clear: Negative stereotypes are harmful, and we should not perpetuate stereotypes about adolescent behavior that we do not want our teenagers themselves to mould their habits and brains out of.

References

Buchanan, C. M., & Hughes, J. L. (2009). Construction of Social Reality During Early Adolescence: Can Expecting Storm and Stress Increase Real or Perceived Storm and Stress? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19, 261-285. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2009.00596.x

Carskadon, M. A. (1990). Patterns of sleep and sleepiness in adolescents. Pediatrician, 17(1), 5-12.

Duell, N., Steinberg, L., Chein, J., Al-Hassan, S. M., Bacchini, D., Lei, C., Chaudhary, N., Di Giunta, L., Dodge, K. A., Fanti, K. A., Lansford, J. E., Malone, P. S., Oburu, P., Pastorelli, C., Skinner, A. T., Sorbring, E., Tapanya, S., Uribe Tirado, L. M., & Alampay, L. P. (2016). Interaction of reward seeking and self-regulation in the prediction of risk taking: A cross-national test of the dual systems model. Developmental Psychology, 52(10), 1593–1605. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000152

Qu, Y., Galvan, A., Fuligni, A. J., Lieberman, M. D., & Telzer, E. H. (2015). Longitudinal Changes in Prefrontal Cortex Activation Underlie Declines in Adolescent Risk Taking. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(32), 11308–11314. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1553-15.2015

Qu, Y., Pomerantz, E. M., McCormick, E., & Telzer, E. H. (2018). Youth's Conceptions of Adolescence Predict Longitudinal Changes in Prefrontal Cortex Activation and Risk Taking During Adolescence. Child Development, 89(3), 773–783. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13017

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