President Clinton and the First Lady convened developmental experts, policy-makers and families at the White House on May 2 to discuss new research on adolescence, the problems and challenges that teens confront and how parents and communities can help young people navigate the often tumultuous years that bridge childhood and adulthood.
"A conference like this and the resulting media focus on teens is using the bully pulpit of the White House in the best way," says Columbia University's Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, one of several psychologists who spoke at the conference.
Certainly a wave of public awareness about brain development in the first three years of life followed an earlier 1997 White House summit on early childhood.
"In many ways, that conference and today's conference can be viewed as bookends," said Mrs. Clinton at the May conference, "because now we're beginning to learn that the brain goes through yet another, and equally critical, growth spurt during the early teen-age years. Though the research is still preliminary, scientists now believe that this is the time when all the hard-wiring of the brain takes place, when a teen-ager's intellectual, emotional and physical capacities are developed for a lifetime."
Recent incidents of teen-age violence have raised worries about teens' psychological health, although a recent Clinton administration report shows that teen-agers complete more schooling and community service than in the past, and rates of youth violence, suicide, teen pregnancy and drug use are declining. University of Michigan psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, PhD, echoed that assessment but noted that about 25 percent of the nation's teen-agers remain at risk "because we as a society have failed to provide adequate in- and out-of-school experiences for them."
And, the panelists said, it is up to adults to do this. Brooks-Gunn suggested that community efforts to squelch risky behavior, such as after-school arts, music and sports programs and volunteer and work-study opportunities may be most successful if they reach a "critical mass" of teen-agers, rather than just a scattered few.
Temple University psychologist Larry Steinberg, PhD, a panelist at the conference, emphasized that far from becoming irrelevant in teen-agers' lives, parents continue to be an important influence on their children during adolescence. Youngsters whose parents are warm and involved, set guidelines and show interest in teens' opinions stand the best chance of healthy adolescent development, Steinberg noted.
As part of a continuing involvement with the White House Conference on Teens, APA Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer Jeff McIntyre was named to a new Presidential Task Force on "Navigating the New Media." Announced by the First Lady, the Task Force is a publicprivate effort to provide tools for parents and teen-agers to find resources through Web sites and to help parents monitor their teen-agers' use of the media.
Coinciding with the conference, President Clinton announced plans for a public education campaign emphasizing the importance of parents' spending time with their teen-agers. He also issued an Executive Order to keep parents in the federal workplace from being discriminated against in hiring, training, promotion and dismissal.
President Clinton said, "If we can't deal with these big social issues now when we're prosperous, when we're doing well; if we can't strengthen the bonds of our community now, when will we ever get around to doing it?"