Dean Burnett: You could forgive a teenager for looking at the wider adult world, and saying '...it’s really up to us now'
We speak to neuroscientist Dean Burnett about A-Level results day, and how activists like Greta Thunberg are handling the pressure put on them by society.
Dean Burnett, neuroscientist, comedian and science writer, looks at the teenage-parent relationship in his new book, Why Your Parents are Driving You up the Wall and what to do about it. But what challenges to today’s teens face?
What inspired you to write this guide for teenagers?
Well, I could give you some spiel about the ‘sign of the times’ and the inter-generational disputes, the strong political divide.
Take the environmental aspect; Greta Thunberg is the leading voice of climate change, she’s only 16. Right now, we’re at a very, very important point in history where the older and the younger generation are perhaps more distant from each other than they’ve ever been. Something which addresses that, or at least helps people to understand it, could be helpful, and I think it is an important thing to consider right now.
But if I’m being completely honest, it was my editor Jamie who first approached me, and said “I’ve got this idea for a reverse parenting book. Would you like to write it?”
I thought, yes, yes I would, and that’s pretty much what happened.
How do you think teenagers are handling this extra pressure put on them by society?
I think they handle it surprisingly well. I mean, you see all these teenage protests and there’s never been any sort of controversy or clashing. If you’re looking for the angry, violent protests, look at the Vote Leave protest with all the 50+ year olds getting into tangles with the police. That’s quite telling, I think.
It’s really good to see teens reacting as maturely as they are. I think you could forgive a teenager for looking at the wider adult world, and saying 'they’re clearly not doing what they’re supposed to, so it’s really up to us now'. That’s going to be more stressful for them, but it also gives them a sense of more control, a sense of taking issues under their own wings and then being responsible for them.
...if you’re 15, you’re adult enough to be tried as a terrorist, but if you’re 16, you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing and you shouldn’t be leading a climate revolution.
I will say of criticisms that ‘they’re only young’, ‘they don’t know’, ‘they’re not adults yet, they can’t make these decisions’... That logic was strangely lacking when it was a 15-year-old, who ran away to join ISIS and marry a terrorist.
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‘She knew what she was doing; she’s a fully conscious, so she should be punished as an adult.’ Was what was said.
So, if you’re 15, you’re adult enough to be tried as a terrorist, but if you’re 16, you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing and you shouldn’t be leading a climate revolution.
It’s clearly more of an ideological sense of, if they disagree with me, then they’re too young to know what they’re doing; if they do something I don’t agree with, then they’re completely old enough and should be punished.
You can see it’s not exactly consistent and logical.
At what point do you stop being a teenager, then?
Well, it’s actually an interesting question, and quite a contentious one.
In society we have all these age limits, or minimum ages, like 18 to be able to vote, 17 to be able to drive and things like that. In a biological sense, you’re an adult as soon as you’re able to reproduce, so as soon as you hit puberty – when you’re 11, 12 or 13. I think most people would strongly disagree that people at that age are fully-grown adults. That’s just biological adulthood.
There are some estimates that the part of your brain that is the most adult, the most central and forward-thinking, doesn’t finish developing until your mid-20s.
But psychological, mental and social adulthood… that’s actually a tricky subject and it varies a lot.
Read more about the teenage brain:
- What we got wrong about pandas and teenagers
- Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: how to understand teenage brain development
Take the age of consent, that’s a particularly salient one. Obviously it varies from country to country, which is intriguing in itself. But I think in this country it’s also weirdly inconsistent. The age of consent is 16, so at 16 you can legally have sex with someone should you want to do so, as long as they’re at the right age too. But you can’t actually look at anything sexual, like anything pornographic or explicit until you’re 18. That clearly doesn’t match up. How is it meant to happen? 16-year olds, do they all get blindfolds?
So, you can see how there has been trial and error over many, many years of society. Exactly when you start being an adult is a very fluctuating and very inconsistent point, which no one seems to really agree on.
Is there anything you really wish you’d been told when you were a teen?
Yes, and I mention it pretty much in the first passage of the book.
It’s a very vivid memory. It’s either GCSE results day or A-level results day, back in like the late 90s when I did those things. It’s, like, the later Blair years, and the idea of just leaving school and going straight into a job was long gone. Tuition fees were coming in, and people really emphasised these exams are important now.
We were constantly told ‘You must do well in exams.’ We were pressured to do well and work round the clock. I don’t have any academic family to lean on, so it was hard.
It was a big deal to do these exams and do them well. Then results are published – and it’s record high marks across the country. The highest numbers of A-C grades. That was really encouraging, to know we had done well.
And then it came on the news and the first thing you see is someone saying 'Well, it just shows that exams are too easy now, doesn’t it?'.
It was quite a kick in the teeth, to be a teenager and be told by the adult generation, your superiors, your authority figures, 'You must do well in these exams. If you don’t work hard you are doomed,' constantly, for months on end. To do that, and to achieve those results that they were hoping we’d get, and then immediately be told by people round the country, 'no, you haven’t succeeded, you’re just a bit dumb, because obviously these are too easy now'.
That completely pulled the rug out from under us.
It’s been a bugbear of mine pretty much all my life. You’re told 'you’ll understand when you’re older' – well, I am older now, and I don’t understand it. I don’t think it’s right. And I want to try and do something to remedy that.
And that’s sort of where my attitude from this sort of book has burst from.
Are teenagers now better people than you or I were when we were teens?
I can’t speak for you, but I was a lovely boy!
There is some evidence showing that it’s going that way. Some studies suggest that, unlike in previous generations, teens now aren’t having as much casual sex, for example. They are more aware of things like consent and constraint, and they’re not drinking so much, and they’re far more conscious of mental health issues, and more open and accepting of things like gender and sexuality.
You can argue that that’s something that’s been happening for a long time. Things like the Flynn effect – that every generation gets slightly smarter than the last, because there’s just more information available. I would argue that the internet has probably accelerated that somewhat, because you can access the same information anywhere right now.
There are social factors. Are teens not having as much casual sex or doing as much drugs because they’re more health-conscious and more savvy, or, because of the financial situation, they’re living at home a lot longer? You can’t do those things when your parents are breathing down your neck constantly.
So, while the evidence suggests that yes, the modern-day teens are more switched on and savvy than the previous generations, there could be a lot of factors that contribute to that sort of data. I say a tentative ‘yes’, but I wouldn’t say quote me on it.
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.
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