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Harnessing Adolescent Rebelliousness

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?” by Amanda Ripley in The New York Times, September 13, 2016,
“The brains of adolescents are notoriously more receptive to short-term rewards and peer approval,” says Amanda Ripley in this New York Times article, “which can lead to risky behavior.” But young people are also very attuned to autonomy and social justice. “There are two adolescent imperatives,” says Rob Riordan of High Tech High in California: “To resist authority and to contribute to community.” Might it be possible to take advantage of these characteristics to bend teenage rebelliousness toward wholesome ends? A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested that possibility.
The researchers took 489 Texas middle-school students and had some of them read a typical health class article on eating a diet low in sugar and fat, with colorful pictures of fresh foods. The remaining students read an exposé of food companies reformulating products to make them more addictive and labeling unhealthy foods so they looked healthy. “We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures,” said Christopher Bryan (University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business) and David Yeager (University of Texas/Austin), “and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control.”
The next day, in a different setting, students were asked to choose which snacks they wanted in anticipation of a big celebration. Students in the second group were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack like Oreos, Cheetos, or Doritos and choose fruit, baby carrots, or trail mix. They were also seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coke, Sprite, or Hi-C. These might seem like small differences, but the researchers say it would translate into losing about a pound of body fat every 6-8 weeks – a public health triumph! Bryan and Yeager plan a follow-up study to see if these healthy choices persist over time.
“What’s really exciting about this study and other work like it is that if you can appeal to kids’ sense of wanting to not be duped, you empower them to take a stand,” says Ronald Dahl (University of California/Berkeley). “If they are motivated, you can change their behavior profoundly.” A similar campaign against cigarette smoking showed students piling up 1,200 body bags outside the office of a tobacco company (the approximate number of deaths from smoking every day), with an African-American youth using a megaphone to call out the company and an older white man peering nervously out a window above. It’s estimated that the advertising campaign of which this spot was a part prevented 450,000 teens from starting smoking between 2000 and 2004.
Teenagers seem to be particularly sensitive to “even a whiff of mission,” says Reynolds. “Adolescents have this craziness that we can criticize – or we can tap into,” says Ron Berger of EL Education. “This is a time in their lives when justice matters, more than any other time.” Berger’s schools have worked this notion into the curriculum, spurring students in one Chicago school, for example, to engage in community activism and present their opinions to the mayor.
A big unanswered question is whether the positive behavioral shifts in the experiments will last more than a few hours; after all, almost no obesity prevention programs for adolescents result in long-term weight loss and there is a powerful consumer culture pushing young people in the other direction. The ultimate coup, says Reynolds, would be getting teens to see the food industry’s ads as a “booster shot of indignation, rather than temptation.” Then, says Bryant, “the food industry is paying to undermine their own products.”

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