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Coming of age: the emerging science of adolescence

It’s widely accepted that adolescents are misunderstood. Less well known is how far we still have to go to understand adolescence itself. One problem is that it is hard to characterize: the concept of puberty does not capture the decade or more of transformative physical, neural, cognitive and socio-emotional growth that a young person goes through. Another is that science, medicine and policy have often focused on childhood and adulthood as the most important phases of human development, glossing over the years in between.

Yet a better understanding of this phase of life is crucial for ensuring the well-being of a generation projected to be the largest in human history. In this collection, a collaboration between Nature, Nature Research journals and Scientific American, we explore the science of adolescence through multiple lenses, from neuroscience to policy and clinical medicine.

Image: Eric Nyquist


Adolescence is a distinctive developmental period involving rapid growth, learning and neurobiological changes, with the potential for both positive and negative outcomes. This Perspective summarizes our current understanding of developmental processes that occur during adolescence, as well as the learning needed to develop the skills and self-regulatory capacity necessary for becoming independent and integrating into adult society. A more nuanced understanding of the distinctive features of adolescence, especially the enhanced social learning and exploration, may inform policy and interventions seeking to maximize windows of opportunity for shaping the future trajectories of the health, wellbeing and economic success of adolescents.

Perspective | | Nature

Our second decade is a time of tension as we undergo physical changes brought on by puberty while negotiating the socioculturally created phenomenon of adolescence. Carol Worthman and Kathy Trang document the evidence for the shifting dynamics in both, whereby trends towards earlier physical maturation oppose the rising sociocultural thresholds for achieving adulthood. Using a life history theory approach, they seek potential driving forces for these changes, including drivers of the pace of physical maturation and demands for cultural competence and skill learning. Analysing ethnographic evidence from preindustrialized societies, the authors identify mass education as a relatively recent force in shaping the definitions of adolescence. Considering adolescence in terms of life history, trade-offs and sociocultural ecology may provide insights into developing policies and strategies to help youth from a diverse set of cultures and contexts meet their developmental potential.

Perspective | | Nature

Adolescence is increasingly recognized as a developmental period that has a potential for influencing life-course trajectories that is second only to early life, but that could also shape the growth and development of the following generation. George Patton and colleagues review the evidence around how an individual's health, growth and nutrition during adolescence may affect the early growth of their offspring, and consider potential mechanisms for transmission. The current generation of adolescents—now considered to be all those aged between 10 and 24—will be the largest in human history to become parents. The greatest dividends from investments in today's adolescents may be seen in the health and human capabilities of the next generation.

Analysis | Open Access | | Nature

This review summarizes how predictive modeling, a method that uses brain features to predict individual differences in behavior, is used to understand developmental periods. Rosenberg et al focus specifically on adolescence and examples of characteristic adolescent behaviors such as risk-taking.

Review Article | Open Access | | Nature Communications

The current generation of adolescents grows up in a media-saturated world. Here, Crone and Konijn review the neural development in adolescence and show how neuroscience can provide a deeper understanding of developmental sensitivities related to adolescents’ media use.

Review Article | Open Access | | Nature Communications

The prevalence of obesity in adolescents is increasing, and the management of these patients presents unique challenges not seen in adults. Here, Baur and colleagues review the different options for treating obesity in adolescents.

Review Article | | Nature Reviews Endocrinology


The idea that disrupted pruning of neuronal connections in the brain during adolescence is a cause of schizophrenia was proposed in 1983. This proved prescient, as subsequent imaging, genetic and molecular research has shown.

News & Views | | Nature

Early adolescence (age 10–14) is an important window of opportunity to address gender socialization as the basis for health and social justice. This Comment explains why this is the case and provides illustrative examples of existing evidence on strategies to promote gender equitable attitudes in young adolescents.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Young people get a raw deal from society. Targeted study and approaches as part of a new global effort are urgently needed to help them.

Editorial | | Nature

Advances in technology and the advent of social media have led to the emergence of a new phenomenon — cyberbullying. Although there are some similarities, approaches to tackling traditional bullying are largely ineffective in combating cyberbullying, which has been linked to adverse mental health and, in extreme cases, suicide.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Identity formation is an important developmental process during adolescence, with several applied and public health implications. To prevent identity development from going astray, educational efforts, prevention programmes and policy initiatives are needed that help young people develop a healthy sense of identity.

Comment | | Nature Human Behaviour

Dutch adolescents develop their sexuality in a stepwise manner, gradually progressing from first kiss to first sexual intercourse. Adolescents who follow a stepwise sexual development are more confident and engage in less risky sexual behaviour than those who do not. Thus, the stepwise 'sexual career' is an excellent model for guiding development of age-appropriate sex education.

Comment | | Nature Reviews Urology

Recently published data from a large-cohort study confirm the substantial burden of chronic health conditions among childhood cancer survivors, and describe the multiple chronic conditions faced by these individuals. The findings emphasize the need for specialized care in this unique patient population that, as discussed herein, often goes unmet. More must be done to ease the burden on cancer survivors; new models of care are required to improve their long-term health.

News & Views | | Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology


Teenagers derive great value from a stint in a lab, yet not all lab heads agree with the practice.

Career Feature | | Nature