Field Notes: Three Areas in the Science of Adolescence to Watch This Year

Emerging research is informing how we understand and support adolescents and the environments where young people interact with peers and families.

7 mins

CDA Trends

Emerging research is informing how we understand and support adolescents and the environments where young people interact with peers and families. As we move into 2023, the Foundation team is tracking a range of key research in the science of learning and brain development.

Dr. Andrew Fuligni, co-executive director at Center for the Developing Adolescent (CDA) at UCLA, says it’s a very exciting moment in the science of adolescent development because the neuroscience and the behavioral science of adolescence are coming together to tell a very similar story. Neuroscientists, behavioral scientists and social scientists are collaborating with one another and emphasizing the importance of interactions between the social environment and brain development in ways that weren’t seen twenty or even ten years ago.

A thread woven throughout much of this work centers on mental health. A central issue in the work of promoting healthy adolescent development, mental health resources providing support to youth who are in crisis is lacking in our systems and key. In addition, the field can continue to promote the fact that there’s a lot that we know from science and how we can promote positive mental health in the first place.

Below, Dr. Fuligni shares more about what’s energizing him on the field as we look into the year ahead.

Making Connections

A key theme running through emergent research is this one of connection, a combination of the importance of connections within the brain that are made during development, particularly during adolescence, and how that is in turn related to the kinds of connections made in society during the adolescent period. Brains grow and form in many notable ways throughout adolescence through a young person's mid-20s, including how we connect with our families, peers and figure out where we belong in communities. These connections really make a difference for several aspects of our development.

They’re also very important for aspects of brain development during adolescence. And our brain seems to be primed for this. A fundamental aspect of what happens during adolescence is the connection between the learning, motivational reward regions of the brain with prefrontal executive planning, and control regions of the brain and the kinds of experiences that we can afford to provide adolescents that really make a difference.

Giving Back

To apply what making connections looks like practically, one experience that really is important for adolescents, psychologically, socially and in brain development, is this opportunity to make a difference in the world — to contribute and do things for other people to give back. Young people are figuring out who they are and want to become, and are looking for opportunities to build empathy, agency, and identity. Just as it’s important for us to continue to provide support to adolescents, it’s equally important for us to give them the opportunity to do things for other people and to give back and to make change.

Regions and key pathways of the brain are very active and involved when adolescents are doing things for other people where they can make a difference in the world, in ways that are small or large. It could be with their family; it could be in the community. But the important thing is that instead of one-off volunteer opportunities, there should be continual chances for adolescents to make a difference, have impact, and think about what it means to them and to the other people that they’re impacting.

Healthy Risks

In contrast to negative stereotypes about risk-taking, encouraging young people to engage in healthy risks in adolescence sparks positive emotions to accomplishments and can be a rewarding and enriching part of adolescence. There’s a lot of exciting work coming out in the continued expansion of thinking about risk-taking as a key part of learning during adolescence. Risk-taking is a central part of the fundamental discovery period of adolescence, of how we explore the world. How we figure out where we belong, what we are good at, is a key part of learning. We need to fail to learn, and adolescents are particularly well-suited to this, since the adolescent brain is particularly well primed to take risks. CDA plans to produce more content including its Adaptivity podcast and more pieces exploring questions including risk-taking.

It's important for communities and societies to provide young people with healthy ways young people can take risks so that they can learn, and not to potentially hurt themselves or hurt those around them. Risk-taking has very critical equity and diversity elements to it as well. We need to make sure that we give equal opportunities to adolescents to take risks. In many societies such as the United States, we do not give adolescents from different backgrounds access to the same opportunities for healthy risk-taking. The consequences of risking and failing are more consequential for youth from poorer or traditionally marginalized communities.

Bezos Family Foundation is proud to support UCLA’s Center for the Developing Adolescent, to make the science of adolescent development useful and accessible to policymakers, youth-serving professionals, parents and young people themselves, and to advocate for equitable policies, programs and practices based on the science.