On Tuesday, October 22, the Center for the Developing Adolescent and the Funders for Adolescent Science Translation (FAST) held a briefing to spotlight the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report “The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth” key findings, featuring five distinguished panelists.

Panelists included Joanna Lee Williams, report co-author, Andrew Fuligini, an advisory board member at the Center for the Developing Adolescent, Jared Joiner from FAST, Victoria Rideout, author of The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, and Emily Backes, editor of the report. The discussion was moderated by Morgan Butler from Youth Speaks Future Corps fellow.

Butler opened the event with a spoken word piece about trauma, oppression, and becoming a woman that she wrote to illustrate the power of youth voice to tell their stories and be influencers in work. The NASEM report confirms that adolescence is a period of opportunity and not just a transition period between early childhood and adulthood; we need to embrace this period of development stated Backas.

Fulgini framed the conversation with some key characteristics of adolescents. Adolescents engage in flexible problem-solving techniques, and they are highly sensitive to rewards, take risks to figure things out for themselves, are socially malleable, and are concerned about where they fit in the world. It is important to remember that we cannot preach to adolescents and expect them to do exactly what we want. Instead, we should engage youth to help formulate policy solutions. This report includes the voices of youth, and their thoughts were taken into account throughout the entire writing process. Backas remarked how the study committee members prioritize youth voice throughout the report, including the findings and the report cover, which was designed by a college student from Texas. Joiner reiterated that adults have to shift from designing systems for youth to designing with young people.

The panelists were asked where they see opportunities for policy to help adolescents. Joiner stresses more representation in the classroom. America’s schools are increasingly diverse, 49 percent of students are children of color, but 80 percent of teachers are white. Schools should be culturally affirming spaces, and it has been shown that if a black student has even just one black teacher, they are more likely to go to college. Williams agrees that structural inequality is hampering opportunities for youth. There is a disproportionate allocation of resources due to economic, social, and structural disadvantage. Living in poverty already hinders economic opportunity for youth, but poverty paired with racial discrimination and bias will damagingly impact adolescent life-course trajectories. Williams suggests that by getting young people interested in teaching while they are in school, we will be able to recruit a more diverse group of teachers and improve outcomes for students of color.

A focus of the report is the role of media on the developing adolescent brain, and the panelists share that the effect of media content is not as straightforward as one may presume. Williams explains that the impact of social media is different for every adolescent. Parents should ask, “What does my child need?” and “Is media helping to meet those needs?” For example, an adolescent may use media to learn how to play the guitar in a series of free YouTube videos instead of paying for private lessons from an instructor. Youth also utilize media to communicate with people facing similar challenges they are dealing with and develop friendships with other adolescents. However, the parents must also ask, “Is media meeting my child’s needs?” If social media keeps youth from exercising or spending time with family, maybe the parent should restrict the amount of media access. In short, these are questions that should be answered on an individual case-by-case basis.

Fulgini speaks to the fundamentals of brain psychology that show adolescents want to learn about the world, interact with the world, and find their place in the world. In addition, youth are perceptive to messages they hear about how the world perceives them. Although adults feel that they know what is best for adolescents, youth are experts in their lives. It is so important that we engage with youth and consider their thoughts when making policy decisions. Adolescents are incredibly creative, are flexible problem solvers, and have an exceptional capacity for resilience. Joiner emphasizes that adolescence is a period of opportunity rather than a transition period and that we should embrace this time of youth development. As the report says, “By intervening during adolescence, we can improve young people’s overall well-being and help them lead meaningful, successful lives.”

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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