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  • Writer's pictureVidhya SK

Adolescence: a sensitivity to the social

What does the word teenager bring to mind? Since the dawn of time, adolescents have always upheld a negative impression of being moody and reckless. Even Aristotle (350BC in Blakemore & Mills, 2014) describes teenagers as 'passionate, irascible and apt to be carried away by their impulses'. It can be really frustrating to see a teenager you love come to you after having hurt themselves doing something reckless. Perhaps understanding why, could offer some comfort, and help you empathise with young people better, as well as remove wider negative stereotyping against young people within society.

Psychologists describe adolescence as a period of sensitivity to the social environment. This is because the parts of their brains responsible for understanding and responding to social situations is maturing during this time (Mills, 2014). As a result, teenagers might be more vulnerable to being socially excluded, which might affect their anxiety levels massively! A study by Sebastian and colleagues (2010) conducted an experiment using a game of virtual catch-the-ball. Adolescents and adults were either included, in that the ball was also being thrown to them along side the other players , or excluded, where the ball wasn't being thrown to them. Adolescents showed a higher state anxiety and lowered mood, compared to adults, when they were excluded in the game.

I remember growing up that my parents used to say this phrase with anger: "if your friends were to jump off a bridge would you do it too?!" Even though they were saying it to scold me when I did something reckless, I do think they might have a point. Psychologists suggest that the sensitivity to wanting to be socially included, might lead to more risk taking behaviour in young people. For example, a research study using a driving stimulator showed that young people tended to take more risks when driving with a group of friends, compared to when they were driving alone (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005).

Adolescence psychologists Blakemore and Mills (2014) conceptualise this attenuation to social influence and likelihood of group risk taking behaviour using a see-saw model. They suggest that teenagers tend to weight the importance of avoiding social risk (i.e, not doing something their friends aren't doing) over avoiding behaviours that might be risky to their health (i.e smoking). This might be why teenagers partake in seemingly 'silly but dangerous' choices.

See-Saw Model: Blakemore & Mills (2014)

Understanding young people's behaviour in terms of the see-saw model has led to effective campaigns aimed at young people. For example, Gordon, Biglan & Smolkowski (2008) redesigned antismoking interventions to minimise messages about the negative health effects of tobacco and instead, marketed anti-tobacco norms characterised by not smoking being more socially accepted.

All in all, teenage-hood seems to be a unique period of changes. They are met with a number of social-decision making situations, that definitely have a great burden on their emotions and their behaviours. So next time a teenager you love does something silly with their friends, they're certainly not doing it on purpose to spite you! It seems to be a part of how they're maturing.



Blakemore, S.-J., & Mills, K. L. (2014). Is adolescence a sensitive period for sociocultural processing? Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 187–207.

Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41(4), 625–635.

Gordon, J., Biglan, A., & Smolkowski, K. (2008). The impact on tobacco use of branded youth anti-tobacco activities and family communications about tobacco. Prevention Science, 9(2), 73–87.

Mills, K. L., Lalonde, F., Clasen, L. S., Giedd, J. N., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2012). Developmental changes in the structure of the social brain in late childhood and adolescence. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(1), 123–131.

Sebastian, C., Viding, E., Williams, K. D., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2010). Social Brain Development and the affective consequences of ostracism in adolescence. Brain and Cognition, 72(1), 134–145.

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