Oxford workshop explores new measures of adolescent development

18 December 2017

Adolescence – the period between 10 and 19 years old - is increasingly recognised as a sensitive phase for human development and a time of change, creativity and also risk. Nevertheless, adolescence remains a poorly understood stage in the life course. Nearly 9 in 10 of the world’s 1.2 billion adolescents live in low- and middle-income countries, often taking on multiple responsibilities in the face of poverty and jeopardy. Yet most available evidence about this life phase comes from high-income countries. A workshop hosted by Young Lives in Oxford from December 12th to 14th with support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research brought together researchers from different disciplines and countries to discuss what can be done to ensure that the urgent task of supporting adolescents to thrive is underpinned by robust evidence and research instruments which are fit for purpose.  

Context matters. In a new article, workshop co-convenor Marc Bornstein and his co-authors explore evidence from eleven societies. For adolescents, described by the Lancet Commission report Our Future as ‘developmentally primed for engagement beyond their families’, the influence of their wider society and economies is profound. Duke University’s Jennifer Lansford explained how the Parenting Across Cultures project explores biological, familial, and cultural processes in the development of self-regulation and risk-taking across adolescence in nine very different countries: using instruments which offer comparability whilst adapting data collection in a way that is sensitive to local contexts. Hemlata Verma, from the International Center for Research on Women, focused on measures of patriarchal gender attitudes and self-efficacy in describing the challenges she faced as part of a team with Alison Andrew from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others in adapting instruments for an evaluation of the PAnKH Adolescent Girls Intervention in a rural area of Rajasthan. She highlighted how the area is characterised by high levels of gender and caste-based inequality and non-school going girls were unfamiliar with some of the key concepts in widely used measures of psychosocial wellbeing. 

Contexts change. Arizona State University’s Justin Jager has tracked how both big societal changes and changes in adolescents’ families and circumstances combine to affect adolescent wellbeing and development - for example, in changing patterns of young adult binge drinking – and argued for historical transformation to be central to ways of thinking about and researching adolescence. There is a growing policy focus on adolescent mental health in poverty contexts, but the vast majority of published academic work focuses on mental health in high income countries. Rebecca Pearson from the University of Bristol, who has explored the link between mothers’ mental health and children’s outcomes, and whose work spans the UK, South Africa and Brazil, led a discussion on the challenges of adapting instruments in low-income countries, highlighting the value of repeated measurement, finding the right language, and taking account of resources, time and acceptability for different tools, including passive and technology-based methods.  

Adolescence itself is a period of rapid change and multiple transitions. Vu Manh Loi from Vietnam’s Academy of Social Sciences described how differently girls and boys, and 10-12 and 13-14 year-olds on the outskirts of Hanoi responded to different questions and instruments in the Global Early Adolescent Study, with the younger adolescents enjoying vignettes and role-playing and sometimes finding it difficult to answer questions about other people’s perspectives, about hypothetical situations, or about aspects of puberty that they had not experienced directly.  Marta Favara and Gina Crivello described their quantitative and qualitative perspectives on Ethiopian adolescents’ changing aspirations and trajectories as part of a broader presentation about the opportunities and tensions in interdisciplinary research in Young Lives.  

Prerna Banati, from UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti – called for greater attention to measures of adolescents’ participation, as well as use of longitudinal data to understand the early predictors of adolescent outcomes. Many researchers are putting participation at the heart of their research with adolescents, from co-convenor Kate Tilleczek at the University of Prince Edward Island who is exploring adolescents’ digital lives through a Digital Storytelling project, to Debra Pepler from York University whose community-based and action-oriented research combines quantitative, qualitative and observational methods, involving young people and their families in identifying positive strategies to tacking bullying, addiction and cyberbullying. Jenny Parkes from University College London drew attention to the need for policy research to understand why progressive laws and policies do not always translate into tangible change for adolescents, as in the case of gender violence in schools.  Godfrey St Bernard from the University of the West Indies focused on the role of the Commonwealth’s Youth Development Index in bringing together different datasets to make a positive change in the lives of adolescents and young people.

So too, Jo Boyden, Director of Young Lives, argued that research on adolescence has been shaped by dominant assumptions arising out of disciplines such as developmental psychology and the medical sciences, and called for a reconceptualisation of this life phase that aligns more closely with the lived realities of young people in low and middle-income countries today.

Please find the workshop report here, and use #YLAdolescence on Twitter for related findings.