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Teen Views on Adolescence: Findings from a One Day Workshop

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Abstract

What is 'adolescence'? This is a question we put to 28 teenagers aged 14-18 this summer. On the 28th of June 2018, a group of teenagers and researchers came together at a workshop at UCL to share their views and opinions about what adolescence means to them. The result was a day of likely conversations, brilliant ideas and stimulating reflections. This summary report outlines the key views and opinions shared with us during the workshop, focusing on two themes: Meanings of 'Adolescence' and Communicating Adolescence.
Francesca Vaghi & Emily H. Emmott
THOMAS CORAM RESEARCH UNIT
UCL INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION
Teen Views on
Adolescence
Findings from a one day workshop
2
Introduction
What is ‘adolescence’?
This is a question we put to 28
teenagers aged 14 to 18 this summer.
On the 28th of June 2018, a group of
teenagers and researchers came
together at a workshop at UCL to
share their views and opinions
about what adolescence means to
them.
Adolescence is commonly viewed as a
time of pivotal development, when
individuals go through a number of
important physical and social
transitions. But adolescence as a life
stage can also be ambiguous and
unclear, which has led to academic
debate around the meaning of
adolescence. Some have suggested
that ‘adolescence’ should span the
ages of 10 to 24,
1
coinciding with the
physical, behavioural, and social
changes that happen to us during this
time. But social scientists have also
shown mainly through cross-cultural
comparisons that the cut-off point
between childhood and adulthood is
not always so easily defined by age.
2
Although this interest in defining and
understanding adolescence has
1
Sawyer, S. M. et al. (2018) ‘The age of adolescence,’ i n
The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2 (3).
2
Schlegel, A. & Barry, H. (1991) Adolescence: An
anthropological inquiry. New York, NY, US: Free Press.
existed for decades
3
, very rarely have
adolescents themselves been included
in these debates. So, we set out to
address this gap by asking teenagers
what adolescence means to them, and
in turn, how researchers should talk
about this life stage.
The result was a day of lively
conversations, brilliant ideas and
stimulating reflections. The workshop
began with research talks followed by
two co-creation activities making a
timeline from childhood to adulthood,
and exploring ways to communicate
research findings to young people.
This summary report outlines the key
views and opinions shared with us
during the workshop, focusing on two
themes: Meanings of Adolescence,’
and Communicating Adolescence.
Our aim is to reflect what these young
people said, spreading their voices into
the research community and beyond.
We believe adolescents are experts of
adolescence, and their voices are
worth listening to.
Francesca Vaghi & Emily H. Emmott
3
Curtis, A. C. (2015) Defining adolescence. Journal of
Adolescent and Family Health, 7(2), 2.
3
Meanings of
Adolescence’
What does ‘adolescence’ mean for
teenagers in England? We explored
the concept of adolescence in small
groups, by building a timeline of
childhood to adulthood and
discussing key events based on
individual experiences.
Adolescence and the ‘freedom
to grow’
Young people talked about
adolescence as a time of increasing
freedom and independence: travelling
by yourself, getting a smartphone,
having keys to the house, and joining
social media were some of the things
that young people considered positive
changes when reflecting on
adolescence as a life stage. One group
talked about “choosing your GCSEs” as
a significant event where you begin
making your own decisions about the
future, which goes on to shape your
adulthood.
Snippet of a group’s timeline activity.
Key findings: Teens at the workshop said…
Adolescence is a phase of growth and freedom, but also increased responsibility.
Adolescence can be an awkward time, somewhere between childhood and adulthood-
which can lead to uncertainties and anxiety.
Educational progress is an important marker for life transitions from primary school
(childhood), into secondary school (adolescence), into higher education (young adult).
Financial independence was the ultimate marker of adulthood.
As a term, ‘young people’ is too vague teens or ‘adolescents are better
expressions.
4
With this increasing freedom,
adolescence was also seen as a time
of exploration and self-discovery. New
experiences and pushing boundaries
such as smoking, vaping, drinking, and
having sexual relationships, were
identified as central to the teenage
experience and a sense of being
‘grown up’.
Building and expanding your social
network was also an important part of
adolescence. One teen remarked that
adolescence is a time when “you start
to spend more time with friends over
family.” One girl said:
It's a time where you find out
more about yourself, and what
kind of people you want to be
friends with. There are changes
in your friendship groups as you
fall out with people and make
new friends age 16
Challenges of adolescence
Snippet of a group’s timeline activity.
Despite the perks of adolescence,
young people at the workshop did not
view this stage in their lives as always
easy. Many spoke about adolescence
as an awkward time, with uncertainties
and contradictions around what to do
and how to act. Negotiating these
contradictions can be challenging. One
girl wrote:
The bad thing about being my
age is being expected to act like
adults at college/work, but being
treated like a child at home
age 17
Increasing freedom also meant
increasing responsibilities, particularly
at school and college which was
sometimes met with stress and anxiety.
One group talked about having to
manage their school work and
timetables, which is something they
had to get used to. Studying for GCSE
and A-Level exams was particularly
stressful.
Overall, teens in our workshop
generally recognised both the positives
and negatives of adolescence.
Adolescence was not viewed as an
inherently negative stage in life
contrary to the stereotypes, which often
focus on adolescence as a time of
‘storm and stress’.
5
Adolescence isn’t a negative
word, it’s the words around it
that are negative, like
immaturity and lack of
independence.
One boy made it clear, we’re not
lazy!
Adolescence as a key life
stage
Forget about age! Age isn’t
accurate enough…
What defines adolescence as a life
stage? Teens at the workshop thought
that age mattered less than big life
transitions in determining the end of
childhood. It was the events and
experiences that defined adolescence
as a life stage. Given this, many
thought adolescence was getting
longer. One girl said:
Adolescence lasts longer these
days, as people go to uni and do
internships, and need more
support from parents.
Education was an important marker of
transition for teenagers at the workshop.
Several people in the group linked the
jump from childhood to adolescence
with the beginning of secondary school,
with adulthood beginning after
completing a university degree.
‘Student’ is a good term to
apply to 18 to 21-year olds,
even if not everyone in this age
bracket will be in education…
Most young people at the workshop
agreed that financial independence
was a decisive marker of the end of
childhood. Making decisions about
what and who you want to be was also
seen as important. One boy said
adolescence ends and adulthood
begins …when you decide which
way you must follow.”
In this way, adolescence was seen a
life stage to set yourself up for
adulthood.
Snippet of a group’s timeline activity.
6
“We spend most of our lives as
adults, so it’s important to
understand what happens
before, and how it impacts
adulthood girl, 17
7
Communicating
Adolescence
Teenagers in our workshop came up
with a range of ideas on how to
communicate research about
adolescence. They agreed that there
is a need for research findings to be
communicated to both young and older
people. Engaging adults in
conversations about younger people’s
experiences was seen as helpful to
fight stereotypes of teens being lazy or
selfish.
Social media naturally came up as one
of the preferred ways of accessing
information, with Snapchat and Twitter
on top of the list. Participants also
expressed preference for infographics:
“We don’t want walls of text!”
Keeping information entertaining and
simple was seen as a way to make
academic research accessible.
One of the groups designed a
communication plan using a clickbait
headline. Clickbait headlines were
seen as acceptable, “As long as it’s
tasteful.” Over-using emojis was
discouraged.
One group’s communication plan a Twitter
campaign to share information about adolescence
(both positive and negative!) using the hashtag:
“How to communicate research to young
people”
Another group worked with a clickbait title:
8
We also explored if the words used
by researchers to categorise life
stages and adolescence were
meaningful for teenagers. Together,
young people discussed the different
age ranges which went with different
terms relating to a life stage. Below is a
summary of what they said:
Words
Suggested Age
Ranges
Childhood
0-10
Pre-Teen
11-12
Teen
13-18, 13-16/17
Adolescence
13-16, 16-24, 13-
21, 14-17
Student
18-21
Youth
Under 18s
Young Adult
16-18, 18-26, 18-
25, 22-25
Young
People
Under 25s, 25-40,
16-20
Adulthood
26+, 25+
“Teen” or “Teenage” was a term with
most consensus, with everyone
agreeing it started at 13 years and
ended between 16-18 years. One
group talked about the word “teenage”
being associated with negative
characteristics, such as less respect
towards authority.
“Adolescence” was talked about as a
developmental period, and it was
difficult to attribute to an exact age. One
group agreed, “It’s from around 13 to
24, but it varies from person to
person.” Adolescence was seen as a
formal term, associated with puberty
and developmental changes.
“Young people” was taken to be about
age, but there was little consensus on
what the age range was. In general,
teenagers in our workshop did not
relate to the term. One boy said, “It’s
just someone who’s not old. I don’t
really know what it means.” One
person was not sure if the phrase was
a positive way to describe teenagers,
and thought it could be patronising: “Is
young a good word to use? It relates
to immaturity and lack of
experience.”
One group reflected on the implications
of researchers putting adolescents into
certain categories:
Young people don’t know they
are being categorised in particular
ways, but this might have
consequences on the medical care
they get, for example girl, 16
“Age could be used as a useful
marker for research, but not to
quantify development” – girl, 17
9
Lessons Learnt
The key aim of this workshop was to
invite adolescents, as experts of
their own lives, to engage with and
share their perspectives about some
of the long-lasting debates on the
meaning of adolescence.
By contributing their experiences and
views during the day, these teenagers
challenged common preconceptions
about adolescence, particularly its
negative aspects. Adolescence was a
time of growth and self-discovery. They
were not lazy, nor selfish.
Yet, they also explained why
adolescence can be lived as a time of
ambivalence, given the increasingly
long time span adolescence occupies.
This was a time of transition, with an
unclear boundary between childhood
and adulthood. In some aspects of their
lives, adolescents were expected to “be
adults,” while in others, they were
constrained into childhood. Both could
be a source of stress and conflict, with
anxieties about increasing
responsibilities, and frustrations over
lack of autonomy.
It’s important to note that, while
teenagers in the workshop valued
freedom and autonomy, this didn’t
equate to less support. Rather,
teenagers were explicit about needing
to be supported throughout
adolescence, and that having support
was key in addressing their stress and
anxieties. What they wanted was to be
supported in a different way from when
they were children. As one girl put to us,
I want to be supported to make my
own decisions and mistakes.
With this in mind, how should
researchers define and talk about this
life stage? One clear message we
picked up is that adolescence is about
development and transitions. In that
sense, a rigid age-range of
adolescence is likely to conflict with
how adolescents view adolescence.
Another point is perhaps the need for
researchers to focus on the positives as
well the negatives of adolescence
looking at the benefits, not just the risks.
It needs to be noted that the teenagers
who took part in the workshop were of
a particular demographic: most were of
a middle-class background, were
female, and had aspirations to pursue
higher education qualifications, as well
as highly paid jobs thereafter. To gain a
broader view of adolescence, future
participatory activities must include a
much more diverse group of people, so
that the variety of concerns and
10
experiences that adolescence encompasses can be better gauged. This will further
help challenge some of the assumptions researchers make about adolescents, refine
the scope of the questions they seek to answer, and make space for the voices of
those who are being researched.
With these caveats in mind, we hope this short report provides some useful insight to
Teen Views on Adolescence. We have endeavoured to reflect their opinions and
experiences as accurately as possible, focusing on summarising rather than analysing.
We hope our work provides an example of how we can involve teenagers as partners
rather than the subjects of research, showing also how to innovatively communicate
research to wider, and younger, audiences where it, arguably, matters the most.
Francesca Vaghi & Emily H. Emmott
About the workshop
Young people aged 14-24 living in England were eligible to attend the workshop, with
the event being advertised through social media and schools. In total, 28 teenagers
aged 14-18yrs took part in the workshop. The workshop began with presentations by
researchers on adolescence across cultures (Dr Emily Emmott), adolescent wellbeing
(Larissa Pople) and adolescent brain development (Cait Griffin). This was followed by
an afternoon of small-group activities: building a timeline from childhood to adulthood,
and developing a communication plan on topics from one of the presentations.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank the 28 teenagers who came to UCL to take part in the workshop,
and the schools and parents who supported them to attend. The event was led by Dr
Emily Emmott (UCL Thomas Coram Research Unit) and supported by Francesca
Vaghi (UCL Thomas Coram Research Unit), Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), Cait Griffin (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience),
Larissa Pople (The Children’s Society), Dr Alexandra Turner (The Children’s Society)
and Cliff Manning (Parent Zone). The event was funded by UCL Grand Challenges
Adolescent Lives 2018.
11
F. Vaghi & E. H. Emmott (2018) Teen Views on Adolescence. University College London, London, UK.
Thomas Coram Research Unit
Department of Social Science
UCL Institute of Education
27/28 Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AA
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