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Journal of Adolescent Research http://jar.sagepub.com/

The Gift and the Trap: Working the ''Teen Brain'' Into Our Concept of Youth Howard Sercombe Journal of Adolescent Research 2010 25: 31 DOI: 10.1177/0743558409353065 The online version of this article can be found at: http://jar.sagepub.com/content/25/1/31

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The Gift and the Trap: Working the “Teen Brain” Into Our Concept of Youth Howard Sercombe1

Journal of Adolescent Research 25(1) 31–47 © The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: http://www. sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0743558409353065 http://jar.sagepub.com

Abstract Progressive developments in scanning technologies over the last decade have led to a surge of new research into the structure and function of the brain and into differences between the brains of teenagers and other adults. This work has not been free of controversy, notably around the question of deficits in the capacity of young people concerning risk-taking behavior. In a previous article, Michael Males mounted a challenge to this body of work, arguing that it exaggerated the propensity of young people to take risks and ignored the impact of external contextual and sociological factors. In responding to Males’s article, this article not only supports his concern about deficit models of adolescence but also explores the way that the new brain science takes us beyond the century-old binary between biological determinism and social constructionism. It calls for renewed scholarly effort to develop theory and discourse that will allow us to think about young people’s responses in terms of the interaction between biology, experience and social context, and individual agency. Keywords adolescents, brain development, theories, social policy, neuroscience, risk taking, maturity, responsibility, biological determinism, social constructionism

In a previous article in this journal, Mike Males mounted a spirited challenge against what he saw as the growing momentum in youth studies to exaggerate 1

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK

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Journal of Adolescent Research 25(1)

the propensity of young people to live dangerously (Males, 2009). This momentum, according to his article, has been driven by the new capacity of cognitive neuroscience, using much improved technologies (especially in magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) to map detail in both the structure and function of the brain, and to be able to compare adults and younger people across those dimensions. A major conclusion from these studies, that young people are more prone to sensation seeking and risk taking (Steinberg, 2008), has influence across a range of policies involving ages of majority, including such fundamentals as the democratic franchise, on the premise that young people’s capacities and responsibilities could be more closely aligned. There are two core elements to Males’ (2009) argument. The first is that empirically the evidence does not support the axiom that young people are particularly risk prone. Official statistics of a wide range of indicators of risk taking (such as accidental death) show rates of misadventure that are similar to other adults.1 Serious consequences from risk taking by young people are very rare: Almost all young people negotiate their teenage years without mishap. Second, he argues that...
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