Decoding the quanta of teen behaviour

Understanding teenage behaviour, I've been told by people who study the mysteries of the mind, is tougher than detecting a photon without destroying it. Unravelling its mysteries would, like the photon experiment, win you a Nobel, not for physics but for peace (and quiet).

Few adults, however, really bother to decipher the delicate quantum state of teen behaviour. We assume their minds and bodies work in ways similar to our own and impose behaviour codes accordingly. And when our our well-laid plans to nudge them to live a productive life fall flat, we scratch our heads and wonder what they - not us - did wrong.

Take adults efforts to protect them from content inappropriate for underage minds.

A leading Delhi psychiatrist once told me how airing shows with the so-called 'adult content' late at night was a very stupid policy. 'Most parents are in bed by 11 pm, and the only one up till 2 am are teens, who then have unsupervised, unlimited access to whatever their parents say they cannot do,' he said.

The differences in teen and adult sleep patterns is not breaking science but behaviour well established. Human sleep-and-wake patterns vary at different stages of life for all of us, irrespective of your chronotype (whether you are a late-night 'owl' or an early-rising 'lark') you are. In teenage, for example, most of us tend to stay up late and get up even later because of natural delays in the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, which slows the body clock. So, instead of melatonin secretion starting after 9 pm - as for most adults that puts you at your deepest sleep at 2 am - the secretion works at a two to three hour lag for most teens, making them night owls who are most alert at midnight and sluggish in the morning. Circadian rhythm reset again, drifting forward as we age and making us ready for bed earlier and getting up at sun up.

Trouble starts when adults forget this and come up with harebrained policies to  protect them from inappropriate 'adult' content on television by imposing time restrictions and 'guess what I just said' beeps that turn teens into sleepless lip-reading experts overnight.

Teenage exposure to alcohol advertising actually increased after daytime and evening bans on alcohol advertising in television and radio in the Netherlands since 2009, reports the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) in the US and the Dutch Institute for Alcohol Policy. The report, published in the Journal of Public Affairs, found time restrictions prompted companies to move the advertising to late night. While the restrictions did protect viewers under age 12, the increased exposure of teens was far more worrying because this is the age they are most likely to start drinking. This happened, and no prizes for guessing, because teens are the largest percentage of the nighttime television audience.

Along with smoking, alcohol is the drug most frequently used and abused by adolescents. At least 14 long-term studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink, or if they are already drinking, to drink more.

'With growing numbers of adolescents having a television in their bedroom, forcing alcohol advertisers to move ads into late night television is akin to inviting them to have a private conversation with adolescents every evening,' concluded study co-author David Jernigan from JHSPH.

For teenager, bans are like Mt Everest: they have to be conquered simply because they are here. Banning your teen from swearing, drinking and smoking will instantly push these to the top of the coolness chart, which affects adolescent and teen lives more than fears of smoking and alcohol-induced sudden death. Instead, making all the stuff you don't want them to do sound regular and boring will be a bigger disincentive to the teenage mind than all the restrictions and bans put together.


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