Why Teen Paternalism?

Though in centuries past 15-19 year olds were treated as adults, today we often paternalistically restrict their behavior because of "immature" brains.   An OpEd in Monday’s New York Times says 35-54 year olds actually behave worse:

A spate of news reports have breathlessly announced that science can explain why adults have such trouble dealing with teenagers: adolescents possess "immature," "undeveloped" brains that drive them to risky, obnoxious, parent-vexing behaviors. … But the handful of experts and officials making these claims are themselves guilty of reckless overstatement. More responsible brain researchers … caution that scientists are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work. …

Our most reliable measures show Americans ages 35 to 54 are suffering ballooning crises: … 46,925 fatal accidents and suicides in 2004, leaving today’s middle-agers 30 percent more at risk for such deaths than people aged 15 to 19 … 21 million binge drinkers (those downing five or more drinks on one occasion in the previous month), double the number among teenagers and college students combined …

Overdose rates for heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals and drugs mixed with alcohol far higher than among teenagers. … More than half of all new H.I.V./AIDS diagnoses in 2005 were given to middle-aged Americans, … It’s true that 30 years ago, the riskiest age group for violent death was 15 to 24. But those same boomers continue to suffer high rates of addiction and other ills throughout middle age, while later generations of teenagers are better behaved. Today, the age group most at risk for violent death is 40 to 49, including illegal-drug death rates five times higher than for teenagers.

Strangely, the experts never mention even more damning new "discoveries" about the middle-aged brain, like the 2004 study of scans by Harvard researchers revealing declines in key memory and learning genes that become significant by age 40.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    Many of these comparisons do not make an awful lot of sense. Is it not plausible to guess that teenagers drink less alcohol because they are not allowed to, for example? (I assume the numbers refer to the US)

  • jeff gray

    lemmus-
    read carefully. 21 million adult ‘binge drinkers’ is supposedly 2x the # of teen and college ‘binge drinkers.’ and despite the law, average underage access to alcohol is virutally unfettered.

    the definition of ‘binge drinking,’ is of dubious practicality vis-a-vis actual drinking behavior

  • josh

    jeff,

    that’s not really true about access to alchohol being unfettered. Underage access to alchohol involves lots of sneaking, and making connections to people with access. They can’t just walk into a supermarket or bar, and the non-college age ones live with their parents.

  • josh

    jeff,

    that’s not really true about access to alchohol being unfettered. Underage access to alchohol involves lots of sneaking, and making connections to people with access. They can’t just walk into a supermarket or bar, and the non-college age ones live with their parents.

  • RW

    Perhaps this is just largly unguided behaivor on a large scale. It seems to be a bias that most older people consider the young generation to be degenerate regardless of objective evidence and many parents/other older people seem to want government to step in. Lawmakers get to satisfy and create needs in their voters by targeting a part of the population that has no political influence. Win/win for parents and politicians but these measures seem to impact minors negativly.

    Speaking of this I just turned 18 myself yesterday and am now awaiting my paperwork to gain legal control of my funds, looking at bankrate and so on. I am pretty sure that I, like most newly 18 or 21 year olds, will promptly forget about the issues for underage people.

    Perhaps the often bemoaned masses of non-voting young people signal the more rational young actor in America who knows, unlike their parents, that voting is almost always without actual effect(public choice theory and whatnot) 😛

  • J Thomas

    I didn’t follow up links on those statistics. If 35-54 year olds have twice as many binge drinkers as 15-24 year olds — aren’t there roughly twice as many of them? 20 years worth as opposed to 10 years worth. They do die off some after age 24 but then the older group includes boomers which would make the numbers higher.

    Other things equal wouldn’t you expect about twice as many of them? That wouldn’t say that the young people are better or worse about binge drinking. It looks like more of the same.

  • jeff gray

    josh-
    perhaps ‘virtually unfettered’ is too strong, but as you point out, many kids can obtain alcohol with little trouble. (e.g. some parents are quite laissez-faire, most college age friends are obliging, and attractive girls usually have no problem getting into bars.)

    the point is that despite the official prohibition of underage consumption, they have significant access and use it. CDC quick stats
    From the page: “people aged 12 to 20 years drink almost 20% of all alcohol consumed in the United States(1). Over 90% of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks(2). On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers(3).”

    2000 Census data says total population under 18 is 25.7%, & projected to 2010 is 24.1%. (www.census.gov)
    Underage drinkers consume comparable amounts with adults. Thus it is not plausible that teenagers consume less because they are not allowed to. In fact they may consume more, precisely b/c they are not allowed to and binge frequently.

  • anon

    It seems to be a bias that most older people consider the young generation to be degenerate regardless of objective evidence.

    That bias is partly justified. One of the most puzzling things about society is that the young do not learn from the previous generation as efficiently as they could. You may receive a lot of practical advice about academics or driving skills, but things like how to manage a career or how to be be a good lover are often left to trial-and-error problem solving.

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom Tom McCabe

    “That bias is partly justified. One of the most puzzling things about society is that the young do not learn from the previous generation as efficiently as they could.”

    This also applies to the older generations, who didn’t learn from their parents (notice how the baby boomers in power ignore the lessons of 1929?)

  • joe

    Once you are old enough to fully comprehend the consequences of your actions, you can make as many “immature” decisions as you want. What is wrong with preventing youth from making decisions of which they may not be old enough to fully understand the consequences?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Joe, no one fully comprehends the consequences of their actions. The question is how can you tell if someone is “mature”?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    As my father used to say to me, “Okay, you’re an adult. You can afford bail. Do as you wish.”

    I think it’s pretty absurd for any of us to pretend to maturity when all of us are less than a thousand years old, making us infants by the standards of future civilization.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Actually, what I meant to say, of course, was:

    Arr, mateys! If ye be old enough to afford bail, ye be old enough to spend it! Don’t go pretendin’ to yer bloody airs, when the star of yer birth be still shinin!

    (Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Arr!)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    As a young person, I have to say that my impression is that the old fogies are right: youngins are idjits. My relative impression may be due to the composition of olders folks vs young that I interact with. I’ve never been in a prison, for example, where many misbehaving adults are found.

  • joe

    “no one fully comprehends the consequences of their actions. The question is how can you tell if someone is “mature”? ”

    True, I was not very careful with my words, but certainly adults are more aware of consequences than children.

    The question of how to tell if someone is mature is difficult, but it certainly should not simply be judged by actions. If someone is old enough to understand that they are throwing their life away, should they still be considered immature?

  • Nick Tarleton

    If someone is old enough to understand that they are throwing their life away

    That someone can profess knowledge of this does not show that they can grasp what it means. In fact, given the results on scope neglect (and echoing what Eliezer said), I kind of doubt that any of us can viscerally grasp this.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’m not sure any human can be old enough to understand what it means to throw their life away, but maybe we can understand what it means to sacrifice our life to save another. Understand the balance, if not the balanced.

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom Tom McCabe

    “I think it’s pretty absurd for any of us to pretend to maturity when all of us are less than a thousand years old, making us infants by the standards of future civilization.”

    The question is, how do we (here and now) decide who should get decision-making power? If you must, think of it in terms of “how can the chimps decide who is old enough to go pick berries”? The question is irrelevant to human (future) civilization, but because humans (transhumans) are descended from chimps (humans), if the chimps (humans) can’t come up with a decent answer, there isn’t going to be any future civilization.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Side-stepping the whole issue of “maturity” for the moment, I think there is a case for a decent amount of teen paternalism, if there is any teen paternalism.

    In our modern societies, we deprive teens of a fundamental right, enjoyed by every adult: the right not to go to school. We do this, because we have decided (rightly, in my view) that the whole of society, and the teens themselves, benefit greatly from primary and secondary education. Some societies also deprive teens of the right to drive, or at least drive alone (I’m less convinced about the moral argument there, but the statistical evidence is strong).

    But any major restriction in rights (and this is a major restriction) means that we can’t deal with them as full adults. We cannot burden them with full adult responsabilities, if we don’t grant them full adult rights (by “we”, I mean parents, teachers as well as governments). Consequently, teens are less likely to take responsability for their actions. So their actions will be less responsible. So we have a strong case to restrict these actions.

    So, in summary: once we act paternalistically towards teens in some major way, we can’t just leave it at that: we have to act paternalistically towards them in other ways as well. We have to tolerate more, and restrict more, than we would otherwise. The paternalism leaks out.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    Jeff,

    point taken. But my more general argument was that you’d have to control for the amount of social control different groups are subjected to before drawing such conclusions. To take an extreme example, if group A is allowed to drive cars and group B is not, it says nothing about either group’s “responsibility” if group A’s members have more driving accidents.

  • mim

    The espousal of a simplistic brain-development theory by the semi-informed can only lead to a lockstep approach to parenting, education and social policy. If all seven-year-old brains (except for developmentally disabled ones), are just this much developed, then all seven-year-olds (except the developmentally disabled) are capable of understanding these concepts and incapable of understanding those. Period. Science has spoken.

  • Nick Tarleton

    mim, is any scientist saying all seven-year-olds have the same brain?

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom Tom McCabe

    “We do this, because we have decided (rightly, in my view) that the whole of society, and the teens themselves, benefit greatly from primary and secondary education.”

    Education in the United States does not work. Forget for a moment all the complicated reasons why it does not work, or why it shouldn’t work, or why it should work but doesn’t; just look at it as a black box system. In come four and five-year-olds. Out come eighteen-year-olds. The goal of education is to produce an educated populace. Is the populace educated? No. I would bet cash that 90% of the population cannot pass a basic high school science or math test. 50% of the population still believes that the Earth is six thousand years old. We can’t even beat out Lithuania in math and science literacy (http://mwhodges.home.att.net/education.htm). Clearly, something somewhere is not working, or is not working well enough.

  • mim

    Yes and no. I hear a lot of generalizations, even from psychologists, about what the brain of a certain age is like, and with no qualifications about tendencies or individual differences.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    we have decided (rightly, in my view) that the whole of society, and the teens themselves, benefit greatly from primary and secondary education.
    Why do adults not benefit from the same thing? From what I’ve heard, the reasons we require children to attend school were first to prevent immigrant children from avoiding assimilation and later to remove the young from the workforce and thereby increase wages.

  • mim

    To elaborate on my recent answer: Yes, I’ve heard quite a bit about what a brain of a certain age is or isn’t capable of doing, and this bit about drinking and driving is typical. And psychologist Susan Linn’s fine book Consuming Kids would be even better without those broad-brush generalizations.

    All this brain talk seems to be the result of the way the mind-body problem has been resolved. If the mind is simply a manifestation of the brain, and the brain is part of the body, then cognitive development is bodily development, like musculoskeletal development, and a child below a certain age can no more be skeptical about a TV commercial than a 3-month-old baby can walk. Psychologists may take a more nuanced view, but if they don’t communicate these nuances to laypeople, how are the latter to know that these nuances exist?

    And why is the baby-boom generation reckoned from 1/1/46? Those who were born in 1945 from V-J Day (August 14) to Dec. 31 were subject to the same cultural inflences as those born the year after. If they’re not baby boomers, what are they? They’re certainly not war babies.

    I’ve never received a straight answer from anyone in the news biz; only speculations by those just as ignorant as I am.

  • Nick Tarleton

    mim, no offense, but that’s even more awful than most arguments for dualism. As everyone knows, there is variation in the developmental schedule of physical traits – some babies can walk earlier, and some later, than others (and some never) – and so there can be variation in the development of mental traits even if the mental is physical. (And it seems safe to say that there is an age below which very, very few children can understand a commercial as such.) I suppose there might be some psychologists who communicate that there are things all two-year-olds can do that no eighteen-month-olds can (or whatever), but I’ve never seen one and doubt they constitute a majority. Communication could certainly be clearer, but I would say laypeople also need to learn to recognize generalizations as generalizations.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    we have decided (rightly, in my view) that the whole of society, and the teens themselves, benefit greatly from primary and secondary education.

    Why do adults not benefit from the same thing? From what I’ve heard, the reasons we require children to attend school were first to prevent immigrant children from avoiding assimilation and later to remove the young from the workforce and thereby increase wages.

    Adults do benefit from the same thing, but it does seem that most adults who do not acquire certain skills early in life never acquire them (at least not to a good level). Teaching them when they are children is the then the sensible thing to do. Secondly, children are of virtually no economic value today (the absence of high-paid child labour indicates this). So removing them from the workforce when they are young is a sensible thing to do.

    I’ve never heard of removing the children from the workforce to increase wages though; do you have any evidence for that? Would seem a ridiculous thing to do today, for the reason mentioned above; as for that being the case in the past, since an educated adolescent would be more in demand than a standard seven-year old, this should result in greater competition for bottom of the skill mountain. There might be nuances to this picture (aspirations may increase as well); but increasing wages through compulsory education would be a very uncertain way of doing so.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Education in the United States does not work. […] Is the populace educated?

    The question is not how much they are educated compared to other countries. The question is how educated they are compared to not having a (US) education at all. For a start, they can read, and count – a not completely insignificant difference. Internationally, countries with decent education systems tend to fare much better than countries without them.

  • mim

    >And it seems safe to say that there is an age below which very, very few children can understand a commercial as such.

    Of course there’s such an age, but since I didn’t have any claim for the “right” age in front of me, all I could say was “a certain age.” Maybe I should have said that children X age can’t understand Y.

    But the main point of this discussion is to recognize the temptation of taking generalizations at face value, which is what we do when we assign rigid age norms. That temptation has been around with us for a long time; Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg warned against it in 1943 in Infant and Child in the Culture of Today. But since then the focus of psychology has shifted from the mind to the brain, and that makes those age norms even more tempting, and the responsibility of experts to point out the limits of generalizations even greater. If they don’t, we get silly pontifications such as that teenagers make foolish choices because their brains aren’t fully formed.

  • Pingback: ParaSpy.com » Blog Archive » More from the "rationalists". . .