As part of their development into young adults, humans must develop an identity independent from their parents or family and a capacity for independent decision-making. They may experiment with different roles, behaviors, and ideologies as part of this process of developing an identity. Teenage rebellion has been recognized within psychology as a set of behavioral traits that supersede class, culture, or race; some psychologists, however, have disputed the universality of the phenomenon.
There remains some debate as to whether the causes of teenage rebellion are completely natural or necessary. Some posit that an adolescent's failure to achieve a sense of identity can result in role confusion and an inability to choose a vocation, and/or that these pressures may develop from being viewed as adults. Indeed, in the Western world the age at which one is considered an adult (in both the cultural and legal sense) has advanced from the early teens in earlier centuries to the late teens – or even, in today's society, one's early twenties.
In Scientific American, however, Harvard psychologist Robert Epstein disparaged the notion of "the immature brain that supposedly causes teen problems" as largely a myth, and wrote that the turbulence often seen as typical of these years is not "a universal developmental phenomenon." Epstein alternatively contends that external factors – notably "treating older and older people as children while also isolating them from adults and passing laws to restrict their behavior" – are in truth more responsible for the angst seen among many teens.
The socioemotional network
Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg suggests that "stopping systems within the brain make adolescents more susceptible to engaging in risky or dangerous behavior." He argues that social programs and measures discouraging youth from taking part in risky behavior (such as drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, and unsafe sex) have been largely ineffective.
Steinberg also posits that this is because teenage risk-taking is generated by competition between the socioemotional and cognitive-control networks. Both go through maturation processes during adolescence, but do so at different rates. Specifically, the socioemotional network, which dictates responses to social and emotional stimulation, develops more rapidly and earlier during puberty. The cognitive-control network, which imposes regulatory control over dangerous decision making, develops over a longer period of time, across the whole of adolescence.
Steinberg states in his article "Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science" that "systematic research does not support the stereotype of adolescents as irrational individuals who believe they are invulnerable and who are unaware, inattentive to, or unconcerned about the potential harms of risky behavior."
Teenagers have the same ability as adults to evaluate risks and their own vulnerability to the risks. Increased availability of information and education regarding the consequences of risky behavior have improved adolescents' understanding of the risks. It has done little, however, to change the actual behavior.
This is because the rules that teenagers break when they rebel are based upon the logical system supported by the cognitive-control network. This network is utilized by the adult authority, but is overthrown in adolescents by the stronger socioemotional network. From the point of view of a cognitive psychologist, a large factor in teenage rebellion is the natural early development of the socioemotional network.
In fact, a Cornell study from 2006 determined that teens are more likely to consider risk while making a decision, and for a longer period of time, than adults. They are more likely to overestimate the risks, in fact. Teens also, however, will take risks because they find the reward (such as instant gratification or peer acceptance) more valuable.
Rebellion against peer norms
Not all teenage rebellion takes the form of violation of rules (i.e. illegal activity such as drug and alcohol abuse, vandalism, theft and other delinquency). Often teenage rebellion takes form in the violation of societal norms. And as these norms are set in place as much by teens themselves as by their adult caretakers, teenage rebellion within teenage culture is also commonplace. Rebecca Schraffenberger comments in her article "This Modern Goth (Explains Herself)" that her peers saw her bookishness and shyness "as vulnerability and ... made a game of preying upon it. I wasted a couple of years trying to conform and fit in, to wear the clothes from Benetton and buy the ultra-trendy Guess jeans. By the time I was fifteen, I gave up."
In this case Schraffenberger abandoned the societal norms of Guess jeans for an alternative minority goth culture. Much of goth culture defies majority norms within the teen community; specifically it values fascination with subjects such as death, dark music, depression, and emotional demonstration, subjects which by nature are counter to societal norms.
- Epstein, Robert (June 1, 2007). "The Myth of the Teen Brain". Retrieved May 31, 2016.
- Temple University (2007, April 12). Teenage Risk-taking: Biological And Inevitable?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 21, 2009, from Sciencedaily.com
- Temple University (2007). Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives From Brain and Behavioral Science. Current Directions in Psychological Science pg. 55-59
- Cornell University (2006, December 12). Why Teens Do Stupid Things. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 21, 2009, from Sciencedaily.com
- Schraffenberger, Rebecca. (2007) "This Modern Goth (Explains Herself)", Goth Undead Subculture. New York: Duke UP, 2007.
- Harris, Darryl. B. (1998) "The Logic of Black Urban Rebellions," Journal of Black Studies. 28(3), pp. 368-385.