The importance of puberty: A call for better research models

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | March 26, 2019

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“Due to the global slowdown in fertility, this is probably the biggest cohort of young people we will ever see,” says anthropologist Carol Worthman. “If we are ever going to get serious about helping adolescents reach their full potential, now is the time.”

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Puberty is much more than just a time of biological overdrive, propelled by sexual maturation. Progress in developmental science has greatly broadened the perspective of this critical maturational milestone.

“We’ve moved beyond thinking of puberty as simply raging hormones,” says Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology at Emory University. “Major advances in understanding of brain development clearly show that the sociological and psychological impacts during puberty are just as important as the hormones.”

What’s needed now, Worthman argues as lead author on a new paper, is to integrate this understanding into more comprehensive research models. The Journal of Research on Adolescence published the paper, which reviews key theories and methods that are relevant to studies of puberty.

“Puberty was once thought of as the biological process of teen development and adolescence was considered the cultural process,” Worthman says. “We want to raise awareness that bracketing research in this way is no longer a useful approach.”

For decades, researchers have focused on improving the health of infants and children, resulting in substantial declines in child mortality worldwide.

While babies and children are labeled as cute and positive, full of possibility, adolescents are more often seen as problems. They have generally been less studied, Worthman says, even though the second decade of life is a critical time when risks spike for the development of mental illness, substance abuse and the escalation of injuries. And what happens in puberty, she adds, impacts health and well-being across the lifespan.

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