Opinion: it is now argued that adolescence can last until the age of 24 which brings new challenges for both education and the workplace

Over a quarter of the world’s population and the largest generation in human history, more than 1.8 billion adolescents are coming of age around the world. But what does the term adolescence actually mean?

Adolescence is often synonymous with puberty and the teenage years, but here too lies confusion. It’s said that adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture. Puberty, the biological start of adolescence, initiates a phase of transformation across all body systems and is widely observed to be starting earlier. The median age of menarche or first menstruation is 12.5 to 13.5 years. However, this is a marker of pubertal maturation, typically occurring up to three years after the onset of puberty at around age 10.

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Della Kilroy reports on What's Working for Young People, the first international conference in Ireland focussed on adolescent behaviour

While it is more difficult to measure markers for males, the same trend of earlier puberty has been recorded internationally. However, the "end" of adolescence has no biological marker and is instead characterised by the adoption of adult roles such as completion of third-level education, marriage and parenthood. Across many societies, these role transitions are now occurring much later, from around the mid-20s. Bookended by puberty and culturally defined adult roles, it is now argued that adolescence extends from 10 to 24 years of age.

In recent years, the inner workings of the adolescent brain and their outward expression in words and actions have been the focus of an explosion of research inquiry and popular interest. In her award-winning book Inventing Ourselves – the Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains how the human brain develops from back to front. Originating from the pre-frontal cortex at the front of the brain, higher-level cognitive abilities such as decision-making, planning, self-control, social interaction and self-awareness are the last to develop, doing so through the mid-twenties.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on her book "Inventing Ourselves - The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain"

In addition, the brain regions governing risk-taking and the experience of pleasure and reward are intensely active in adolescence. This lead American psychologist Laurence Steinberg to refer to the "three Rs" characteristic of adolescent brain development – the regulatory system, the relationship system and the reward system.

What impact do these new understandings of adolescent brain systems and behaviour have on how we educate our young people? Parents and teachers of primary school children should know that puberty is beginning earlier, likely from fourth or fifth class. Similarly, higher education institutions must take into account that the majority of their undergraduate students are still adolescents, with cognitive, social, emotional and self-regulatory capacities that are not yet fully mature. However, the role of "adult learner" is typically conferred on third-level students, requiring them to be organised, motivated and largely self-directed in their studies, as well as having greater responsibility for managing their own finances, leisure activities and self-care, including meal preparation and sleep.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist with Wicklow HSE, Dr Patrick Loughran on on how mobile phones are leading to a lack of sleep amongst young people

All of this occurs within a socio-cultural environment that offers less external regulation than ever before, with entertainment media available on-demand, the ability to communicate with peers at any time of the day or night via social media and 24-hour access to supermarkets, university libraries and computer labs. With most first year university students moving directly from a highly structured and regulated school and home environment, it’s little wonder that many students experience this as a challenging transition into and through higher education.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, levels of low wellbeing, mental distress and mental illness among students in higher education are increasing and are high relative to other sections of the population. Three-quarters of all mental illnesses begin by the mid-twenties. Against this backdrop, higher education settings are now recognised as important sites for primary prevention and the promotion of positive mental health in Ireland. The National Youth Mental Health Task Force Report 2017 calls for universal approaches across different settings including higher education institutions. This reflects a multi-tiered public health framework with universal, targeted and intensive services providing a continuum of support for "all", "some" and "a few" young people, a perspective endorsed for wider service delivery in Ireland and elsewhere.

Laurence Steinberg on how adolescence is a pivotal time in a person’s development and life outcomes

In addition, colleges and universities are encouraged to take a whole organisation approach to the wellbeing of their students, young people and staff, permeating all policies, curricula and practice. There have been calls for academic and support services staff to be enabled to work more closely together to help students and for wellbeing to be embedded in higher education curricula.

Ideally, such approaches should consider both content and process. Credit-bearing opportunities to learn about brain and body health, how to create daily habits and routines that support physical and emotional wellbeing and mental health literacy are needed. This content should be meaningfully and coherently embedded within higher education programmes, particularly for first-year students, who can be encouraged to collectively harness the power of peer influence for good and to look out for each other.

Curriculum-based civic engagement and outreach activities can provide safe opportunities for risk and reward, peer and adult esteem and enhanced social status. Incorporating developmentally appropriate scaffolds into curriculum content and processes, where the blend of challenge and support is graded, enables a phased development of self-regulation skills for learning and life. Rather than seeing this as a therapeutic turn in higher education or a distraction from academic scholarship, health and education can and should be seen as two sides of the same coin given the reciprocal and synergistic relationship between educational attainment and health outcomes.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ