Saturday, 31 March 2012

Future Directions of Adolescent Development in Interpersonal and Societal Context

As we move into the twenty-first century, significant progress has been made in understanding adolescent development in different interpersonal and community contexts. Research on enduring topics like adolescent-parent and peer relationships has expanded to become more contextual and more inclusive, but ethnic, racial,
and cultural variations are vastly understudied in newer areas of emphasis, such as sibling and romantic relationships. In general, ethnic minority adolescents remain overrepresented in studies of risk and underrepresented in research on normative development.

The newly emerging research on civic engagement is part of a broader trend toward considering developmental assets and positive youth development, and this new focus is giving increased prominence to topics that have been ignored or even shunned in the past, such as adolescent well-being, religiosity and spirituality, and compassion and altruism. Likewise, new technological advances in communication, including Internet use and access to the World Wide Web, Internet chat rooms, instant messaging, and text messaging, are changing the way adolescents communicate with peers and are raising concerns about differential access among youth of different socioeconomic statuses, leading to a new “digital divide”. The influence of these emerging technologies on adolescent development remains to be determined. The challenge in these emerging areas of research is to bring strong integrative, conceptual, and developmental frameworks to bear and to incorporate the findings into our existing knowledge base on adolescent development.

Another noteworthy trend has been the increased emphasis on collaboration among researchers, practitioners, and policy makers. Recent shifts in research and funding priorities challenge researchers to focus more on research that is amenable to translation into applied and policy arenas. A notable example is recent research on adolescents’ decision-making competencies and developmental maturity in the context of the legal system. Finally, in the last review of adolescent research appearing in this series, which experts concluded that research on cognitive development during adolescence “has been moribund for some time”, but new developments noted previously in the developmental neurosciences and in brain imaging along with a reinvigorated study of adolescent meta-cognition, reasoning, and consciousness, as well as moral and social cognition, hold much promise for an integrative view of transformations in cognitive functioning during adolescence.

More generally, the ascendance of ecological models, which has been aided by recent innovations in statistical methods, including developments in multilevel and growth-curve modeling, has led to a greater understanding of how contexts constrain, shape, and influence adolescent development. Despite significant gains, these advances also have led to a field that has become markedly less developmental. Over the past 30 years, the pendulum has swung from largely decontextual research focusing on intra individual processes of development to research that is highly contextual but has little to say about intra individual processes. Topics such as identity, intimacy, self-understanding, and ego and moral development that formed the cornerstone of the developmental study of adolescence in earlier decades have been replaced with a focus on individual differences in adjustment. Moreover, adolescents construct, interpret, and make meaning of the social contexts they inhabit, and although it is surely the case that their active agency influences their developmental trajectory, the constructive nature of adolescent development is not readily apparent in current theorizing or empirical research. Our understanding of adolescent development would be enhanced by a renewed interest in studying longitudinal changes in intra individual processes of development as adolescents assert choices, make decisions, and develop within different contexts and cultures.

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