27 Dec 2018

Never ask a boy 'why?'

From Our Changing World, 5:00 pm on 27 December 2018

In this University of Otago science communication podcast, student Mary Rabbidge wants to find out what is going on in the brains of teenage boys.

The brains of teenage boys have a mind of their own.

The brains of teenage boys have a mind of their own. Photo: Tony Gabbusch

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Teenage boys are renowned for their impulsive behaviour and lack of self-control.

That’s because the adolescent brain is a construction zone, littered with surging hormones and incomplete neural structures. This plays out in the way boys behave: from harmless pranks to more serious, life-threatening risks.

I ask some real teenage boys just what they get up to when our backs are turned. What are the best things to do when class is a bit boring? The list is lengthy and inventive.

Can they explain what is going through their mind when they do these things to each other? Not really.

Adrienne Buckingham, a school teacher with a background in psychology, explains the challenges faced by teenage boys and how their capacity to make sound decisions is not yet fully developed.

Adrienne initiated the Assessment of Wellbeing in Education (AWE) programme in her school. Students and teachers complete an anonymous survey at the beginning and end of the year based on a variety of areas of personal wellbeing.

Individuals with low wellbeing in any area have the option to make themselves known to Adrienne and other support staff. Her work in this programme has given her insight into the stresses and issues faced by teenage boys. 

Adrienne explains that the pre-frontal cortex - the centre of decision making and rational thought in the human brain – is not fully formed in adolescents.

Current evidence suggests this process is not complete until one’s late twenties. Add to this the stress of continuous assessment at school and judgement via social media, and it is understandable the pre-frontal cortex is under a lot of pressure.

According to Adrienne, the brain of a teenage boy is, “a piece of machinery that’s having some major overhauls.”

Without this region of the brain operating at full capacity, a human goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode.  Sound decisions are hard to make in this state. Impulsive acts, such as a boy hitting the guy next to them, are ways to stimulate the production of dopamine, the reward hormone.

Physical contact, Adrienne says, may also be an attempt to generate the bonding hormone oxytocin.  And of course, testosterone plays a role.

Societal pressures don’t help matters either. The world for adolescents today is vastly different from the way it was in their parents’ generation.

As Adrienne says, “They’re seeing things that I don’t think the human brain has ever been exposed to.” The pressure to perform is heightened by the influence of social media, advertising, and the nature of the education system. When they do something irrational, it is important to remember that these boys are at the mercy of hormones, a growing brain and a lot of external pressure.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Teenage boys can offer us a positive outlook on life, not taking things too seriously. Boys will always look for a laugh and that is something to be valued. 

So, the teenage brain is not a complete disaster area. It’s just a temporary construction zone. The best thing adults can do is let them grow through it, have a laugh - and of course, never ask why.