Reframing Adolescent Development: Identifying Communications Challenges and Opportunities

This #MustReadMonday, we are featuring an interview with Drs. Andrew C. Pool and Nat Kendall-Taylor on one of their recent articles: Reframing Adolescent Development: Identifying Communications Challenges and Opportunities. This article examines some of the public’s dominant ways of thinking that might pose barriers to an accurate understanding of adolescent development and offers suggestions for ways in which researchers could help dispel common misperceptions. Research on which the article was based was funded by the Funders for Adolescent Science Translation and conducted in partnership with the Center for the Developing Adolescent. 

What would you say is the major theme of this article?

Andy: What this research showed is that there are gaps and misperceptions in what the public knows about adolescents and adolescent development, and there are certain ways that communicators and experts can close some of the gaps in the knowledge that the public has. They can clearly define adolescence and talk about the opportunities and the risks that occur during adolescence in a more balanced way. What we tend to see is that the risks are over-emphasized in the media and elsewhere. Also, I would suggest talking about adolescence in a way that doesn't just emphasize individual success—we want to promote the narrative that it does take networks of loving and caring support to help adolescents thrive.

You and your coauthors mention that you used a grounded theory approach in your interviews with experts on adolescent development, and, in doing so, you pulled and categorized common themes from each interview. For those not familiar with this method, could you expand a little on how the process works?

Nat: The analysis uses grounded theory, but it goes a step further than that. The way that assumptional or cultural models analysis works is that you're looking for explicit patterns in what people are saying. Over the course of a two-hour interview, what are the patterned ways that people are responding to questions? And, over the course of a sample of interviews, what are the patterns that you’re seeing in how different people are responding? You can think of it vertically and horizontally. We're looking for patterns in discourse—the way that people consistently answer questions. Those explicit patterns are analyzed using grounded theory analysis which is essentially about beginning from an open coding perspective. You are going in and starting to find patterns, documenting those patterns, and then, as you continue the analysis, retesting the patterns that you are seeing emerge. At the end, you should have a set of code—or descriptions, that account for or represent the data. This is grounded theory analysis.

The really interesting piece comes from the fact that, in assumptional or cultural models analysis, you're going a step further. You're not just interested in the common patterns that emerge in what people are saying, you're interested in inferring and trying to figure out what they’re thinking--the assumptions, patterns of reasoning, implicit propositions, and constructs that shape those explicit patterns in discourse. Those implicit things are really the level at which we're writing and doing the analysis and the piece we're trying to find. People can’t explicitly identify these cultural models. People don’t say “When I think about adolescence, I'm implicitly viewing this is a period of inherent threat and danger.” When you find those explicit patterns in what people are saying, you ask: why is it that people are so frequently and consistently going to examples of adolescents doing stupid things as their first and top-of-mind thing? Then you start to see these assumptions, and then you go back to the data and test those assumptions and find their predictive value. Understanding these assumptions, can we have some kind of a predictive perspective on our data, and do the assumptions help us understand what is going on?

You also mention that the cultural interviews that were conducted were person-centered. Could you speak to what this means and why it is important specifically in the context of cultural interviews?

Nat: Person-centered is a term that comes out of psychoanalytic interviewing originally, where you are not structuring an interview based on a series of questions in a particular order, but rather looking at an interview guide as a set of topics that you want to cover over the course of an extended interview or series of interviews. If you're interested in understanding how people think, a lot of those patterns of thinking are only visible in the decisions that people make in terms of where they go in a conversation. The essence of person-centered interviewing is providing the space within an interview for people to take the conversation in the directions that they deem relevant—and seeing these directions helps you figure out how their thinking—helps you see their patterns of reasoning. It's frequently in those directions that you see those assumptional mindsets and cultural models. If you try to take a conversation and create an opening, do people go back to where they were before? This would indicate a strong or a dominant assumption. So it is allowing the participant to dictate the course and the order and the progression of an interview. What that means for the interviewer is that you have to assure that, over the course of a two-hour interview, you are allowing people to navigate but that you cover all of the concepts that are relevant.

One of your findings was that the public seemed to underestimate the importance (and significance) of neurological development in adolescence, and you and your coauthors mention that this finding emphasizes a lack of effective translation of research on adolescent brain development to the general public. What are some ways that such research might be made more accessible to the public? What are some of the benefits that we can expect if the efforts to better translate this research were successful?

Andy: There's a lot of exciting brain development that happens during adolescence, and what we saw in our study is that the public doesn't really seem to be aware of it. In some of Nat’s earlier work they called it a “black box”—people don't really invoke it in any meaningful way. Experts have a ton of knowledge about adolescent brain development, and I would encourage them to get out there on social media and elsewhere and begin to tell the story of adolescent brain development. If they can translate and disseminate those research findings in an effective way, that could be beneficial to families. One of the things that we know is that there are a lot of parents out there that are about the have a teenager, or have a teenager already, and they're hungry for these findings. Brain development is related to so many other behaviors during adolescence that, if you can craft a good, evidence-informed story, it could be beneficial to families in opening up this “black box” and giving them more knowledge.

Do you think that Academic Twitter and the trend for scientists to now be going on social media more often is going to cause a positive shift in more researchers being focused on improving their translation of science to the lay public?

Nat: I've been doing this for almost 15 years now, and a lot of my work has been in the area of early childhood development and the translation of that science into policy and practice discussions and for the general public. Anecdotally, scientists—especially developmental scientists—are increasingly interested in seeing the importance of translating their science: “What I know as a developmental scientist is really important, but unless I have an effective way of engaging people with it—unless I have an effective way of allowing people who aren't my colleagues to understand it—the impact of my work is not what it could be.”

I think the field of early childhood development has been pioneering and groundbreaking in the success of translational efforts. Over the last 15 or 20 years people have started to see that the things that we can look at in terms of what a child is doing developmentally, have their roots in what is going on in the brain. This connection has been relatively effectively and successfully established in a way that, as Andy said, has not happened yet in the field of adolescent development.

We see researchers and academics becoming a lot more committed to the practice of science translation, seeing it as a skill, seeing it as a capacity that needs to be actively developed like any other skill, and then becoming a lot more committed and involved in that process of science translation—whether it's on Twitter, whether it's trying to write op-eds in a more regular way, or whether it's trying to publish in different places or produce a peer-reviewed piece and then write it in a different way for a different audience. Andy is in a really good position to talk about that, given that he sits among people who are trying to do that translation process at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). There are groups like the PolicyLab at the hospital, which is a group of scientists who are deeply committed to exactly that question and specifically looking at policy and policy makers.

This also goes back to the first question about the main takeaway. I think the main takeaway is that you are not your audience, and it is so easy, when we work with other scientists, to view our colleagues as our audience. If I give you a detailed explanation of the role of the microbiome in development, scientists get that—but it's really hard to see that what resonates for us, moves us, and has a clear policy implication for us, most of the time does not for people who are not in our fields and people who do not live, eat, sleep, and breathe developmental science all day, every day. I think the biggest takeaway from this article, talking about those gaps that Andy mentioned, is just simply that we really need to understand how the people who we are trying to communicate with think about our issues. Then, we need to make efforts to take our information and present it, position it, and frame it in a way that bridges those gaps between the things that we know and the way that people think about them.

Andy: I agree. The only thing I would add is that you take something that is complex like adolescent brain development—these peer-reviewed articles are written in highly technical language. You want to be able to push the science forward and that's helpful, but you also have to make this applicable to the lives of everyday parents by tying it into other behaviors and other opportunities that exist during adolescence. That’s where there is a lot of room for improvement.

This article raises an incredibly important point with regard to the Self-Makingness model, in that this cultural model may lead to the public placing less value in helping adolescents gain access to resources and supports. One of your suggestions in response to this finding is that communicators may wish to frame adolescent development as a matter of social rather than individual concern. How might those conducting research on adolescent development help to make this shift in thinking about adolescent development as more of a social issue?

Andy: This really comes back to translation and dissemination of these types of findings. Young people are better off when they have a strong, caring network of adults and parents around them—and that could be parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, educators, or other mentors. There is this uniquely American narrative: “Hard work and willpower is all you need to succeed and be happy in life”, but what the research consistently shows is that that's not the case. Many people that are successful, or happy or well off in life are surrounded by people who care about them. People that care are especially important during childhood and adolescence, when just having one adult who cares about you is great and having a strong network of them around you is even better.

Nat: This is one of the key shifts in terms of framing this issue—how do you move people from this highly individualistic lens, which is kind of causal in the way that most people view development and gets more individualistic in relation to age. The older people get, the more they infer this kind of willpower, bootstraps, grit, gumption, drive as the exclusive and narrow factor that shapes development. How do you shift from that to a more collective, contextual, systemic perspective?

Also, in terms of the impact, you have to shift people from thinking about adolescent development as something that influences only that adolescent and their success to thinking of adolescent development as having social level impacts and affecting communities and society. In research that is not a part of this article but is the next phase of the project, we found that that was one of the most powerful framing maneuvers that you could make was emphasizing the ways in which adolescents have the ability to have pro-social, positive impacts on communities. Giving people examples whereby adolescents do that is one unbelievably dramatic way of shifting mindsets and getting people to support a different set of programs seeing policies in a different way.

There are groups that are that trying to do that. I think Andy and Ken, in their work, are on a mission to provide those more pro-social, collective, community level positive impacts. We are part of a group called the National Scientific Council on the Developing Adolescent, which is associated with the National Center on the Developing Adolescent at UCLA, and this is a lot of their mission as well—they are trying to get articles placed in more popular venues that really highlight those kinds of pro-social elements of adolescent development and what happens as a result to counterbalance what we see in the media, which is the opposite. Most of the stories that we're seeing about adolescents are not examples of them doing good stuff for communities—they are examples of them doing stupid stuff, taking stupid risks, and being dangerous.

What about cultures in which people might be more reluctant to recognize adolescence as a unique period of development?

Nat: This goes back to another takeaway from this article, which is that the degree to which culture matters—that it shapes how people process information. If, as a communicator, you can be sensitive to those cultural mindsets, you can be more effective. What that means, though, is that, as culture varies, so do those challenges and gaps that Andy talked about and so do the techniques that we need to employ to effectively bridge those gaps and translate the information. Culture really matters, and the best analogy that we have is the early childhood work that we've done, where we have had the opportunity to do that work in, now, 10 different countries as widely varying as the UK to Bangladesh to Canada to South Africa to Kenya to Peru. There, what you see is that people have really different ways of thinking about kids, how they work, and what matters, and families and society and government—and all of those things are incredibly consequential and important in understanding those gaps, which are moving targets as you transition and move across cultures.

If there was one message that you would urge experts in adolescent development to take away from this article, what would it be?

Andy: I think they could take a look at the gaps that we identified in our article and think about how their expertise could help to close those gaps a little bit. They would have to then take it upon themselves to write op-eds or post on social media to try to work on their translation skills so that they can disseminate their findings and so that parents, educators, and others could have a better understanding of the lessons.

There are a lot of resources available for parents who have just had children—for anyone that has an infant or small child. There are fewer resources available for parents as their children get older and progress into adolescence. We know that parents are hungry for that sort of information, and all they have to rely on is some of the more negative stuff that they see in the media so they begin to believe that adolescence is this time period they’re going dread—and it's not that way for the majority of folks. It's important for experts to get out there and share their expertise in forms that are widely available to the general public and give them a better understanding of those lessons.

What is one message that you would want the public, including adults and adolescents, to take away from this article?

Andy: For parents, the narrative that gets out there frequently is that they do not matter as much during adolescence—that peers matter more. That's just not the case. Parents matter more than peers during adolescence, and more and more research is showing that. I would want to emphasize the point to parents that they matter. For teens, I would encourage them to remind parents how much they value their input and how much they like them.

Nat: To me, it's the need for balance. The stories that we hear are predictable and pernicious in their negative position and framing of this time of life. But what we don't need is to flip it completely and suggest this is all wonderful because that is also not true. This would do a disservice to science translation and make parents feel horrible because that's not the typical experience. You need to be able to talk about the risk-taking, but you also need to be able to talk about the super-learning, the opportunity, and the openness. An open developmental period entails both positives and negatives—it entails both opportunity and threat. If we could fast forward 15 years and be in a place where our discourse and people's mindsets were more balanced about this period, I would feel like Andy and I and our colleagues have been successful in trying to do what we are trying to do.

What are some of the next steps in this line of research that you are most excited to take (or most excited to learn about from colleagues)?

Nat: It is important to realize is that this research that Andy and our co-authors have published is a first part of a larger project, and later phases transition towards more of the answers to these questions—specific strategies that can be used to bridge those gaps. I would encourage people to look at the more prescriptive reframing research which is available on our website. I'm really excited and happy to have Andy and Ken and their colleagues at CHOP be part of this because the hardest part of doing research like this is finding really awesome, resonant ways of mobilizing new ideas out to the audiences who need to hear it. It's that dissemination or that mobilization process that I think is the most challenging and the most important. Right now, I'm interested in working on how you get this research (and the other parts of this research) out to more of the kinds of people who can get new ideas, different narratives, and different frames into the information ecology that is around us that we were exposed to.

Andy: That is a perfect segue into like the work that I'm privileged to be able to do, which is at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP. We translate and disseminate the science of adolescent development and parenting for an audience of parents, educators, and folks who work with adolescents. I would be thrilled to help researchers translate and disseminate their work. I know it's something that a lot of researchers are passionate about but don't always have the bandwidth for. It is a unique skill and we're in a unique position to help with it. I would plug our website and encourage researchers to reach out to us and let us help them. 

Full article citation:

Busso, D.S., Pool, A.C., Kendall-Taylor, N. & Ginsburg, K.R. (2021). Reframing Adolescent Development: Identifying Communications Challenges and Opportunities. Journal of Research on Adolescence.

 Author bios:

Dr. Andrew Pool is a research scientist at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication (CPTC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He received his PhD in Public Health with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences from Temple University. Since 2017, he has worked at CPTC to translate and disseminate the science of parenting, adolescent development, and character strengths.



Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, is chief executive officer at the FrameWorks Institute, a research think tank in Washington, DC. He leads a multi-disciplinary team in conducting research on public understanding and framing of social issues and supporting nonprofit organizations to implement findings.


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