Teenagers and Defiance – a New Approach

E. Wagele from The Enneagram for Teens

E. Wagele from The Enneagram for Teens

When I was a teenager I hung out with a group of friends who were mostly introverts, highly liberal, and nonconformists. We weren’t risk-taking and we weren’t interested in winning popularity contests. We liked learning and did fairly well in school.

We were idealistic and interested in justice. We didn’t need to rebel much, maybe because we and most of our parents already felt on the fringes of society.

Amanda Ripley wrote an article in the New York Times (9-12-16: Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?) about a new study that found teenagers can be encouraged to reimagine healthy behavior as an act of defiance. When teens found out food companies reform food to make it more addictive and label products to make them appear more healthful than they are, they rebelled against the unfair control of adult authority figures.

Since justice matters to teens, teenage rebellion can be put to a good use instead of being seen as a threat.

“The real test came when the students were asked to choose which snacks they wanted in anticipation of a long-planned celebration. This selection took place in a different class, so it’s likely no one knew that it had anything to do with what they had read. Teenagers who had read the exposé article chose fewer junk food items than those in the control groups. They were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack, like Oreos, Cheetos or Doritos, in favor of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix, and seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coca-Cola, Sprite or Hi-C.”

Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, said appealing to kids’ sense of wanting to not be duped empowers them to take a stand. His own brain-imaging research suggests adolescent brains are not inferior to adult brains, as is sometimes assumed. “If they are motivated, you can change their behavior profoundly.”

In 2009, a study estimated that the campaign, known as “truth,” prevented some 450,000 young people from starting to smoke from 2000 to 2004. “There are two adolescent imperatives: to resist authority and to contribute to community,” said Rob Riordan, co-founder of a network of California charter schools. He found that as students work together toward a shared purpose, the impulse to resist authority fades.

Teenagers who stop eating meat as an act of defiance display the same kind of tenacity.

“At Polaris Charter Academy on Chicago’s West Side, seventh graders learning about the Second Amendment decided to start a campaign against gun violence in their neighborhood. They created four public-service announcements, which aired on television; published a book about peacemakers in their community; and presented their work to the mayor. Taking action felt like a way to avenge gun deaths. It triggered something very personal. And when it became personal, they started to put in the work.

“The authors of the new food study know they are working against a powerful consumer culture. Most obesity prevention efforts do not lead to any weight loss in young people, according to a meta-analysis of 64 programs. But they will soon test whether they can change the way their study subjects see junk-food ads long term — so that each new soda commercial acts like a booster shot of indignation, rather than temptation.”

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