Teens Size Each Other Up So They Can Learn to Be Adults

Some parents may believe their teens are self-centered, but this may not be true after all. In fact, adolescents may take into account their peers' interests and use them to their advantage, according to developmental psychologist Rosa Meuwese.

Meuwese, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, studies adolescent behavior and recently presented some of her findings during her Ph.D. defense on October 31, the university announced in a statement. She believes her research may inform parents of the unavoidable changes going on inside their kids’ young brains.

“Adolescents don’t have a great reputation in terms of their social behavior,” Meuwese said in a statement. “You often hear parents say that their sweet, socially minded children turn into selfish, lazy hotel guests who only think of me, myself and I. But out of sight of their parents, adolescents learn a lot about social behavior from their peers.”

Adolescents—defined as those between ages 10 and 19 years, according to the World Health Organization—experience changes in their brains which affect their social skills, decision-making skills and many other important aspects.

11_3_teens Thirteen-year-old Hanadi al-Hajj Abdallah (center), from the Syrian town of Minbej, sings with friends while being filmed in Beirut's southern suburb of Shatila on April 5, as part of a refugee program called the Refugee Film Project. It is an initiative by international organization SB OverSeas that is helping Syrian refugee children in Lebanon write, direct and act in their own short movies. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

In order to better understand how adolescents develop socially, Meuwese conducted a series of experiments to analyze their behavior, brain activity and friendships.

To analyze brain function, she had study participants play a coin-toss game. About 30 students told Meuwese and her colleagues who they liked and disliked in their class. The students were then instructed to bet on either heads or tails decision that would result in money for both themselves and a friend. Her hypothesis was that the children who won money for a classmate would have heightened activity in the brain’s reward center. But the results revealed that those who were disliked by their classmates and who reacted less to reward had heightened brain activity in the reward center, according to their MRI results.

During another experiment, which also involved a betting game, Meuwese found that children took into consideration others' interests. And as they grow older and their brains transform and mature, they're better able to weigh their own interests against others'. In order to expedite that process, maintaining high-quality friendships could help, she said.

“It will be useful to teach psychology at secondary school. It would give adolescents a better insight into the impact of their decisions on other people, which would have a positive effect on their friendships and consequently on their social development,” Meuwese concluded.

Having friends also helps teens become better negotiators and planners. “They are practicing adult social skills in a safe setting, and they are really not good at it at first,” Sheryl Feinstein, professor emeritus of adolescent development at Augustana University, told Live Science.

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