By: Amanda Ripley for The New York Times.
Since there have been teenagers, there have been adults trying to control them. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the Stubborn Child Law in 1646, allowing parents to have their defiant teenage sons put to death. The Bible suggests stoning them to death. But what if adolescent defiance is not a demon to be exorcised, but a power to be harnessed?
The brains of adolescents are notoriously more receptive to short-term rewards and peer approval, which can lead to risky behavior. But researchers and educators are noticing that young people are also more sensitive to notions of social justice and autonomy. Teenage rebellion can be virtuous — even wholesome — depending on the situation.
A new study out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that teenagers make wiser choices if they are encouraged to reimagine healthy behavior as an act of defiance.
The researchers went to a middle school in New Braunfels, Tex., and randomly assigned 489 eighth graders to different groups. One group read the kind of article you’d find in any health class. It explained how the body processes food; recommended a diet low in sugar and fat; and featured colorful pictures of fresh foods.
Another group read an exposé of cynical practices by some food companies, such as reformulating food to make it more addictive and labeling unhealthy products to make them appear healthy.
“We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures, and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control,” explained the researchers, led by Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin.
The real test came the next day, when the students were asked to choose which snacks they wanted in anticipation of a long-planned celebration. This selection took place in a different class, so it’s likely no one knew that it had anything to do with the reading from the day before.
An interesting pattern emerged. Teenagers who had read the exposé article chose fewer junk food items than those in the control groups. They were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack, like Oreos, Cheetos or Doritos, in favor of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix, and seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coca-Cola, Sprite or Hi-C.
That might seem like a small difference, but if sustained it would translate to the loss of about a pound of body fat every six to eight weeks, the researchers said — a public health triumph.
What I like about this study is that it doesn’t just reframe healthy eating for adolescents; it recasts adolescent defiance for adults. It depicts teenage rebellion as a potential asset to be cultivated, rather than as a threat to be quashed.
Of course, we don’t know if this behavior change will last longer than a day. To learn more, the researchers will be conducting another experiment next year, following teenagers’ cafeteria choices for months after they’ve read the exposé article.
“What’s really exciting about this study and other work like it is that if you can appeal to kids’ sense of wanting to not be duped, you empower them to take a stand,” said Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Dahl’s own brain-imaging research suggests that adolescent brains are not inferior to adult brains, as is sometimes assumed; to the contrary, they may have special advantages in navigating social hierarchies and adapting to rapid change. “If they are motivated, you can change their behavior profoundly.”
In 2000, an antismoking ad, created in consultation with teenagers, featured a group of young people that piled up 1,200 body bags outside the headquarters of a tobacco company — representing the number of deaths attributed to smoking each day in America. In the ad, an African-American youth calls out the company’s sins over a megaphone, as an older white man peers down nervously from his office above. The spot and others in the campaign turned the Marlboro Man narrative upside down, reframing smoking as an act of corporate submission, rather than rebellion.
In 2009, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that the broader campaign, known as “truth,” prevented some 450,000 young people from starting to smoke from 2000 to 2004.
People who have spent their careers working with teenagers have learned this lesson through trial and error. “There are two adolescent imperatives: to resist authority and to contribute to community,” said Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, a network of California charter schools. He has found that as students work together toward a shared purpose, the impulse to resist authority fades.
Adults work harder when they have a higher purpose, too. Health care professionals, for example, wash their hands more carefully when signs remind them of the benefits to their patients’ health rather than to their own, according to the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
But teenagers seem to be particularly sensitive to even a whiff of mission. In another study, also co-authored by Mr. Yeager, students who had been asked to reflect on the larger purpose of their learning were more likely to grind through math problems and resist the urge to watch viral videos or play Tetris. Their self-control increased, in other words, when they connected math to a larger cause. Teenagers who stop eating meat as an act of defiance display the same kind of tenacity, a phenomenon Mr. Yeager calls “spite vegetarianism.”
“Adolescents have this craziness that we can criticize — or we can tap into,” said Ron Berger, who taught public school for 28 years and is now the chief academic officer at EL Education, a nonprofit network of 150 schools nationwide. “This is a time in their lives when justice matters, more than any other time.”
Schools affiliated with EL Education embed social purpose into the curriculum to try to make good use of this trait. At Polaris Charter Academy on Chicago’s West Side, seventh graders learning about the Second Amendment decided to start a campaign against gun violence in their neighborhood. They created four public-service announcements, which aired on television; published a book about peacemakers in their community; and presented their work to the mayor.
Ameerah Rollins, now 16 and a junior at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School, was one of the seventh graders. At first, she said, “none of us really thought we would make much impact.” But as the students began to interview local officials and organize community events, “I noticed that people were starting to look at us, to acknowledge what we were doing.” Nine out of 10 of her classmates knew someone who had been shot or killed. Taking action felt like a way to begin to avenge those deaths. “It triggered something very personal. And when it became personal, we actually started to put in the work.”
From her experience, Ms. Rollins concluded that teenagers may have a distinct capacity to change society. “With adults, they’re more realists,” she said. “They see how things happen, and they feel that maybe this isn’t really worth it. But in seventh grade, we don’t pay attention to the negativity. We never give up. A lot of people may see that as being naïve, but in reality, that’s power.”
Her class’s experience raises other tantalizing possibilities: What else might teenagers be driven to do in the name of benevolent defiance? Could adolescents who learn about the profit motives of the beauty industry begin to see Photoshopped images as propaganda? Could they start to resent how video-game designers borrow slot-machine manufacturers’ tricks to make their products more addictive? More important, could any of these mental shifts endure longer than a few hours?
Mr. Bryan and Mr. Yeager, the authors of the new food study, know they are working against a powerful consumer culture. Most obesity prevention efforts do not lead to any weight loss in young people, according to a meta-analysis of 64 programs. But they will soon test whether they can change the way their study subjects see junk-food ads long term — so that each new soda commercial acts like a booster shot of indignation, rather than temptation.
“Then the food industry is paying to undermine their own products,” Mr. Bryan said, sounding downright adolescent.