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Smells Like Teen Spirit—for Justice

There's plenty of (scientific) reason to believe that teenagers aren't nearly as shallow as we often assume.

What the Media Said

In September, New York magazine’s website The Cut reported on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the headline “Modern Teens Willing to Eat Healthy if It Will Piss Off Their Parents.” The article claimed that teenagers “are laughing in the face of authority one salad at a time.” So much for tattoos and broken curfews.

What the Researchers Tried to Say

The PNAS study described an experiment that pitted teens against manipulative food-industry executives, not their parents. Eighth-graders at a Texas middle school were given an exposé to read about the negative effects of deceptive food-industry marketing practices, particularly on children and the poor; their classmates read a neutral scientific article about how the body processes food. Those who read the exposé linked healthy eating with higher social status and chose fewer unhealthy snacks in a giveaway compared to those who read the scientific piece. The researchers appeared to have harnessed the innate adolescent hunger for autonomy for a good cause. “The rebellion is really against being controlled by the food industry — it’s got nothing to do with pissing off your parents,” says the paper’s lead author.

We Never Give Teens Enough Credit

There is reason to believe that teens aren’t nearly as shallow as we assume. Over the course of their adolescence, young people develop greater interest in service, according to the results of surveys measuring where they derive meaning in life. Moreover, psychologists have found that young people first begin to define themselves in moral terms in adolescence, with some characterizing themselves principally in terms of their moral tenets and goals for the first time. More recently, researchers have identified a neural mechanism that is more active during meaningful or purpose-driven behavior in teens who report lower levels of depression. Don’t let their reputation of posting every iota of their lives online fool you — teens are at least as invested in improving the world as they are in building their personal brands.