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American Association for the Advancement of Science
Teenagerhood, age of opportunity
Many decades ago, the word "teenager" didn't exist. Growing up pretty much meant that you went from being a child to an adult. But, around the 1950s, people began thinking of teenagerhood as its own stage of life, midway between being a kid and a grownup.
Today, young people between 10 and 19 years old make up the largest age group in the whole population. Close to 20 percent of the world's 6.5 billion people are teenagers or preteens! And, cultures around recognize adolescence as an important time.
Lots of the decisions that young people make at this age set them down paths that affect their health and happiness when they are adults, and researchers are very curious about what young people are going through at this time of their lives.
These researchers have designed studies that follow a group of young people over long periods of time, checking in with them from year to year to collect information as they grow up.
One of these studies is the Birth to Twenty study in South Africa, which began with about 3,000 babies in 1990. Since then, researchers have gathered information about these children and their families, and they plan to continue until the children are 20 years old. This is the first generation of children to live in a democratic South Africa.
The researchers have already learned lots of things about these children's lives, and Linda Richter, of the Human sciences Research Council in Dalbridge, South Africa and the University of KwaZulu-Natal describes the study in a special article in the 30 June issue of the journal Science.
The Birth to Twenty study and others like it are showing how important people's teenage years are for shaping the rest of their lives. When kids have a rough start early in life, because of family problems, health problems or poverty, for example, they often face difficulties in adulthood too.
But, positive experiences during adolescence, at school and in the community, can reverse this trend. These kinds of experiences include good nutrition and healthy lifestyle, positive family and school influences, and access to programs that give kids support as they go through this time of rapid change.