From The Hustle To The Harlem Shake: What Science Has To Say About Adolescent Antics Through The Years

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If they’re not shoving Tide pods or copious amount of cinnamon into their mouths, they’re lying perfectly still in a public place, perpendicular to the ground. If they’re not Harlem Shaking, doing the Running Man or getting in their feelings in super dangerous ways, they’re making their Fortnite characters dance on computer screens.

If you’re in your 30s (or older), you probably only understand about half of the previous paragraph. But the high schooler down the street knows what’s up, and he or she is probably on social media posting something about how hilariously out of touch you are as we speak.

Epic burn.


Before you decry this generation of youth as the one that’ll finally do humanity in, though, try to remember back to when you were their age, and your parents thought Pokémon and Marilyn Manson signified the end of days. Or consider when your parents were growing up, and color television and bell bottoms were ruining the youth.

Or crack open a history book and see what Socrates thought was plaguing the younger generation: the written word.


Every generation of adults has lamented the new technology or form of entertainment that their young people seem to be engaged with,” says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence. “Whenever someone like me says, ‘Come on, we’ve been through this before,’ the pushback is always, ‘Well, this time it’s different.’ But that’s what people say every time.

Yes, the generation that comes after you will do a whole bunch of stuff you don’t understand and, no, you will have no chance of understanding it. It’s been that way for centuries. It’s just how our brains work.

Not Broken…Just Developing

Think of your brain. It might be challenging, as the brain is also the thing doing the thinking, but think of it anyway.

Now think about your prefrontal cortex, which governs how you present your personality, your decision-making, your impulse control, and other high-level cognitive behaviors. It’s what University of California–Irvine Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior Elizabeth Cauffman calls the CEO of the multicellular corporation that is your neurological function.


Now, imagine that CEO is pounding Monster Energy drinks and skydiving to impress its friends. It is living for the moment.

There you have the adolescent brain.

The reason kids have a harder time is the part of the brain that keeps them in check or gives them that self-regulatory process, it’s still developing,” Cauffman says. “That’s not to say the brain is broken. Their brains are actually operating exactly like they’re supposed to. Part of learning and part of developing is learning through mistakes, taking risks, experimentation. It’s actually part of the evolutionary model.

The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the time you’re around 22 to 25 years old, according to research by Steinberg, Cauffman, and their colleagues. Until that time, the organism that the brain controls is more susceptible to risk-taking, attention-seeking behaviors, and peer pressure.

imageígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir

And all the other CEOs of all the other brains in the age bracket are attuned to reward this kind of behavior.

The research says that kids are going to act in ways that reveal more difficulty controlling their impulses and behavior than adults,” Steinberg says. “It would be a mistake to say that they’re just like little adults. They’re not. There are some distinctive features of adolescence that help explain why kids do some of the things that adults find puzzling.”

This can manifest itself in potentially harmful high-risk behaviors—driving too fast, overindulging in substances, and so forth—that leave parents sick with worry. It also shows itself in more benign behaviors that leave parents scratching their heads.


The reason you don’t see a bunch of 50-year-olds inundating social media with meme-worthy content is because that sort of thing just doesn’t occur to them. The adolescent brain is the one that’s more willing to try new things—and more willing to accept them.

“We’re wired to be more tolerant of risk-taking during adolescence because if we weren’t wired that way, we probably wouldn’t leave our homes, go out in the world, find mates, and become independent,” Steinberg says. “That’s risky to do when you’re an inexperienced, younger, weaker animal.”

Elvis, Madonna, and Other Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Fresh Prince was right. Oh, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, too. Parents just don’t understand.

No matter how much the circumstances of the world change from generation to generation, the one reliable constant is the sense among the elders that the adolescent population is plunging civilization into ruin.

In medieval England, bored young apprentices were known to vex their lords by spending all their free time gambling and going to bars. The young women of the 1920s wore their hair and their dresses far too short and danced with their beaus to the “devil’s music”: jazz. That thing your grandpa taps his toe to nowadays.

Elvis Presley’s hips couldn’t be shown on television, lest he scandalize an entire nation. MTV banned Madonna videos. Kids spent too much time listening to the radio—then reading comic books, then watching television, then playing video games, then surfing the internet—for their own good.

Now, iPads, smartphones, and other tools of infinite evil are destroying our youth.

Hey, older millennials with teenaged kids: You said you’d never be like your parents. News flash: You’re probably just like your parents.


The interesting and ironic thing is that there are studies showing that we remember adolescence better than any other period in our lives,” Steinberg says. “It’s not as if the adults who are saying these things don’t remember their own adolescence. Adolescence is a time when kids are motivated to become independent and do things to distinguish themselves from their parents. So when parents see their kids doing things that they feel undermine their ability to protect them, they go ballistic about it.”

Cauffman says that teenagers tend to be the victims of some bad publicity as well. What are some of the first things that come to your mind when you think of your teen years?

Hormonal. Moody. Hating your parents. Contrarian just for the sake of it.

Well, Cauffman says, the major hormonal changes in humans actually take place between the ages of 8 and 10, and a 2009 survey of Canadian teens found that 75 to 80 percent of them reported to enjoying being around their parents.

Maybe that’s just Canada, though. So polite.

Cauffman says the “argumentative” label is a bit misleading as well. Teens are probably having the same thoughts about their parents that they started having when they were younger and their hormones started kicking in. They’re just better able to express them as their cognitive functions continue improving.


“We perpetuate the myth of adolescence and forget the positives,” Cauffman says. “It’s not that they’re arguing with you, it’s that now they have the cognitive tools to have a more sophisticated conversation with you. So you, as a parent, have to work harder. I don’t think anything has actually changed. We just hold onto the myths and stereotypes of how we view adolescence, rather than thinking about how these really are great, new changes that are going on during this time.”

Teens and Their Screens

What about this generation of teens? The so-called Generation Z?

Well, they don’t really care about anything, right? They lack the capacity to be serious. They hide from the real world behind their screens—which are making them more depressed, by the way—and waste their time creating and watching silly little things on social media.

Again: not quite.


“I’m a proponent of kids spending a lot of time playing Fortnite, kids spending a lot of time on YouTube, a lot of time talking to their friends,” says Connor Blakley, an 18-year-old entrepreneur who runs his own marketing consulting agency.

“I understand that technology is just a tool to an increased amount of human engagement. The cellphone is just acting as a pathway to further knowledge or a new way to connect with other people. The fundamental principle of happiness, at least in my own life, is sharing moments and memories of people you care about. The phone allows you to do that on a higher level, wherever you want.”


Blakley started his firm, YouthLogic, to help brands speak the language of his generation. Basically, he can help you not seem like a poseur or a cultural tourist if you’re trying to market to kids because they can sniff out disingenuousness.

If you’re an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he can tell you what’s behind that weird Backpack Kid dance that all the kids are doing on your Jumbotron.

He knows this, he says, because he’s done this.

“I called over all the kids in the luxury box, and their parents watched me have a 15-minute conversation on everything they thought was cool and loved,” Blakley said.

He said there are two things that people get wrong most often about his generation. One: They haven’t experienced hardship. Two: They have no attention span.

To that, Blakley would point out that the members of Generation Z saw what the 2008 financial crisis did to their families during their formative years. And it’s not that they have no attention span. It’s just that they know what they want to devote their attention to.

“Rather than spending those six to eight seconds on a piece of content then going to the next thing, we’re just figuring out, in that six to eight seconds, if we deem that content worthy of further attention and investigation,” Blakley said.


The screen criticism, too, is a bit problematic. Cauffman and Steinberg both say the research is not yet voluminous and thorough enough to say in which direction the correlation flows. Does too much screen time correlate to higher levels of dissatisfaction with life, or do kids who are already dissatisfied with life tend to spend more time on their screens?

“Here’s the thing: When you’re young, you have to care about silly things,” Blakley says. “They lead you to a place where you can understand bigger things. It’s that whole analogy where you have to eat a bad sandwich to know what a good club tastes like. A lot of young people get the silly things out of their system, do all the dumb things, make the mistakes so they can actually figure out what they’re passionate about and what’s important to them.”

Yes, they are paying attention.

By Cauffman’s estimation, parents can fall into the trap of losing sight of the important things during their children’s teenage years.

While your kids might take their cues from friends, peers, and pop culture on more superficial things—hair, clothing, slang, dance trends—Cauffman says studies show that the foundational, bedrock aspects of their lasting personalities come out of their home experience.


Morals, values, religious and political beliefs—they really come from the family,” Cauffman says. “Parents are really important, even during the adolescent years. I know parents feel like they don’t listen to them, and that’s really not true. No matter what’s happening in society, parents have a huge influence on their kids and will always have that powerful, impactful force on their kids.”

So, basically, just model healthy adulthood for the teens of today, and they’ll probably turn out fine. You don’t need to worry about their desire to act like mannequins with a bunch of their friends. It’s about as harmful as Socrates thought the written word would be.

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