Statement: Endorsement of the Inclusion of Adolescents in the New NICHD Strategic Plan (and How They Can Go Even Farther)

To the NICHD Strategic Working Group:

As the Leadership Team of the Center for the Developing Adolescent, we are excited to see that adolescence has been included in the NICHD Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2020–2024, specifically under Research Theme #5: Improving Health During the Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood.

The physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive changes that occur during adolescence create a second key period of rapid growth and development similar in importance to the first few years of life. The onset of puberty marks the beginning of a sensitive period during which young lives can change rapidly, shaping health, education, economic success, and social and emotional well-being.

Currently, the language used in the NICHD strategic plan focuses heavily on risk. We want to underscore the fact that adolescence is also a key window of opportunity for positive outcomes including learning, developing heartfelt goals, and finding meaning and purpose—all essential tasks to facilitate well-being in adulthood. It is therefore not enough to focus solely on mitigating risks; more research is also needed into how to increase opportunities to promote positive outcomes.

The developmental science of adolescence holds great promise for understanding the modifiable processes and mechanisms at work during this period. Currently, Research Theme #4: Identifying Sensitive Time Periods to Optimize Health Interventions, focuses on “identifying the timing and mechanisms of plasticity in early developmental stages.” We urge the NICHD to recognize the unique plasticity, particularly for social and emotional learning, that exists during adolescence. A more precise understanding of these modifiable processes—especially when combined with psychological, social, clinical, and public health perspectives—could inform refinement of the timing and types of interventions in adolescence to promote lifelong health and well-being.

We recommend that the NICHD take a leadership role into research on adolescent development under their proposed themes, and focus on the following areas for research:

  • Developing and implementing interventions that promote successful parenting of adolescents
  • Ensuring that the next generation of adolescent developmental cognitive neuroscience considers the variability in social context and environment in diverse populations according to ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status
  • Reexamining adolescent-focused interventions using a developmental science lens (this involves understanding which interventions are most effective at different phases of adolescent development, which aligns with Research Theme #4)
  • Characterizing healthy romantic and sexual behaviors and relationships in adolescence to foster sexual and mental health during this period and beyond
  • Exploring changes in cognitive and social learning during adolescence that promote educational and interpersonal goals as well as general well-being
  • Adapting interventions that improve adolescent sleep to account for biological and lifestyle changes that occur during adolescence (e.g., school start times and increased nighttime use of smartphones and other technology)
  • Deepening our understanding of how adolescents use digital technology and social media, the positive and negative consequences of different patterns of use, and potential interventions to develop healthy social media use habits

In addition, we stress the importance of including adolescents within the context of Research Theme #3: Promoting Gynecological, Andrological, and Reproductive Health. The biological and physiological changes occurring during adolescence create an opportunity to establish good sexual health practices. Expanding research to determine the most effective way to target services during this time will inform lifelong health and well-being.

NICHD can drive the next generation of research into developmental science toward the best way to invest in the adolescent years. We urge NICHD to consider these essential developmental topics as they pursue their adolescent-themed research area.

 

Respectfully,

The Leadership Team of the Center for the Developing Adolescent

Adriana Galván, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles

Ron Dahl, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

Jennifer Pfeifer, PhD
University of Oregon

Andrew Fuligni, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles

Nicholas Allen, PhD
University of Oregon

Linda Wilbrecht, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

 

The Center for the Developing Adolescent works to improve the health, education, and well-being of youth. 

Posted on February 8, 2019